Vietnam's recently appointed Party chief for Ho Chi Minh City and Politburo member Nguyen Thien Nhan in a file photo. Photo AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi
Vietnam's recently appointed Party chief for Ho Chi Minh City and Politburo member Nguyen Thien Nhan in a file photo. Photo AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi

In May, Dinh La Thang, the Communist Party Secretary of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city, was stripped of his post, expelled from the Politburo and made vice-chair of a largely insignificant economic committee.

The ruling Party’s reason for Thang’s removal after just 15 months in office was clear: he made “very serious mistakes” by defying Party orders and losing the state millions of dollars while serving as general director of PetroVietnam, a state-owned energy company.

Within days, the Party’s Central Committee voted in his replacement, Nguyen Thien Nhan, an unexceptional Politburo member who had appeared to fall out of favor after performing poorly as education minister during the 2000s.

Nhan also heads Vietnam’s Fatherland Front, an umbrella group that controls party-endorsed “people’s organizations.”

The politics of Ho Chi Minh City, the southern city once known as Saigon, are important. As Vietnam’s financial hub, the leader of the city’s Party Committee bears considerable responsibility for maintaining the country’s economic growth. The city alone contributes about a fifth of overall national gross domestic product (GDP).

Whoever runs the city also plays an important role in shaping Vietnam’s image abroad: 20% of all foreign investment goes to city.

On paper Nhan would appear to be a good candidate for the post. He studied cybernetics in East Germany and later attended an American university. He is one of the only fluent English speakers in a top Party position. And he has experience in the southern financial hub: he served as deputy chair of city’s Party Committee between 1999 and 2006.

Communist Party secretary for Ho Chi Minh City Nguyen Thien Nhan in Hanoi on January 28, 2016. Photo: AFP/Minh Hoang

But he is arguably not up to the job. His time as education minister was generally viewed as a failure, despite initial hopes that he would bring a technocratic flair to governance. As a result, he was subsequently kicked back to the “center” and made Deputy Prime Minister, a less powerful post in spite of the title.

“I expect passive leadership and mediocre performance from him, unfortunately for Ho Chi Minh City,” said Tuong Vu, professor of political science at the University of Oregon.

The ousted Thang was often likened to a populist figure. He was outspoken on issues like China’s role in Vietnam and the lives of the ordinary ‘Saigonese’, as the city’s residents are still commonly known. Nhan, in contrast, is generally seen as a Party “yes-man.” “He avoids saying or doing anything that offends anyone,” academic Vu said.

But his ascendancy reflects recent changes to how Vietnam’s central government operates. At the last Party Congress held in January 2016, then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was ousted office in what was widely seen as an intra-party power play by Nguyen Phu Trong, the Party’s General Secretary.

Dung was required to step down as prime minister after reaching his two-term limit, but he reportedly wanted to run against Trong to become the party’s General Secretary, “an unprecedented move”, said Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia specialist at the University of New South Wales.

Nguyen Tan Dung, former two term Prime Minister of Vietnam, in a file photo: Photo: Reuters/Mike Blake

Dung was a popular figure for his tough stance on China, his market-orientated reforms and for overseeing closer ties with the United States. But he was also changing substantially the way the Party operated.

During his ten-year tenure the Party’s power was weakened, with everyday decision-making moving instead to the state bureaucracy under Dung’s control, as well as through his own patronage networks at the local level.

“The present Politburo reflects a pull back from individual leadership, as exemplified by Dung’s political style, to consensus-based collective leadership,” said Thayer.

This was alluded to by Trong, now the most influential politician in Vietnam, in an interview with state media in January. “The state apparatus was consolidated, ensuring stability for the implementation of targets and tasks,” Thayer said, referring to last year’s Party congress.

Intra-party tensions, however, remain. There are rumors that Trong is not a fan of some Politburo members, including National Assembly Vice Chairwoman Tong Thi Phong.

Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong at the party’s 12th National Congress on January 28, 2016. Photo: AFP/Luong Thai Linh 

There are also reports of divisions emerging between Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc over Vietnam’s relations with the United States and Europe. Trong allegedly prefers closer ties to China; Phuc with the West.

Old political scores, too, are being settled. Some analysts assert that Thang’s dismissal as Ho Chi Minh City’s Secretary had more to do with politics than corruption.

According to one theory, Dung agreed to step down as prime minister last year in return for his protégées moving up the political ladder – allowing him to retain a measure of control from behind the scenes. Thang, who was close to Dung, did just that when he joined the Politburo at the Party congress.

His rise was unexpected, analysts say, since his name wasn’t even on the initial list of candidates approved by the Politburo for election. Pham Chi Dung, an independent journalist, recently told Radio Free Asia that many more of Dung’s allies are “still in the system and they have become an obstacle to Trong. He can’t sleep in peace.”

Some analysts, however, doubt the extent to which factions dominate the Communist Party’s actions. “It may well be that factions are not permanent alignments, but transitory coalitions on specific issues,” Thayer said.

Performers dance with large national flags in a file photo marking a previous anniversary of Vietnam’s communist regime in Hanoi. Photo: AFP / Hoang Dinh Nam

One such specific issue was who should become Ho Chi Minh City’s next leader. When the Central Committee met in early May to make the decision, there were major differences in opinion, according to an article on the independent blog Dan Lam Bao.

President Tran Dai Quang favored To Lam, the current Minister of Public Security. A former Ho Chi Minh City party chief, Le Thanh Hai, who apparently still has the ear of the Politburo, championed propaganda department chief Vo Van Thuong.

Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh, meanwhile, was backed by Truong Tan Sang, who stepped down as president last year. Sang, who also served as the Party leader of Ho Chi Minh City in the late 1990s, now allegedly acts as an unofficial adviser to Trong.

It would appear then that Nhan was not the first choice of any of the major power brokers. In fact, he was reportedly not a serious contender at the beginning of the selection process. His nomination was therefore a compromise pointing towards the Party’s return to “consensus-based collective leadership.”

Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (C) stands next to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (R) and President Tran Dai Quang (L) on January 28, 2016. Photo: AFP/Kham 

But even if Nhan wasn’t Trong’s first choice, the General Secretary doubtless feels comfortable with him in charge of Vietnam’s second city. He is one of the few Politburo members seen as “clean” by most people, analysts say. This is important considering the reputation of his predecessor and growing concerns inside the Party that corruption is corroding its standing at the grass roots level.

The central government, led by Trong, is currently making strong sweeping claims about fighting internal corruption. In May, Trong promised that “more [cases] will come” in the government’s campaign against graft.

Just as important is the fact that Nhan is relatively neutral when it comes to factions, which is “precious” for the central government, journalist Pham Chi Dung wrote recently.

Perhaps the most significant outcome, however, is that Trong will now have a reliable ally in Vietnam’s south. Hailing from the southern province of Ca Mau, in the Mekong Delta, and with past connections to Ho Chi Minh City, Nhan’s appointment was welcomed locally, said Thayer. (His predecessor, Thang, was one of the few city chiefs born in the north.)

After being plucked from relative political obscurity and handed an important role, Nhan now owes Politburo leaders a considerable debt of loyalty, which he is almost certain to repay – even though it might prevent him from running Ho Chi Minh City as efficiently as some hope.

During his inauguration speech Nhan said that he had learned many things from working in the central government in Hanoi, “one of which is the Party’s discipline,” state-media reported.

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