Vietnam's politics are expected to intensify in 2020 in the run up to next year's Communist Party Congress. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Tran Quoc Vuong, a mainly unfamiliar apparatchik with Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, arrived in France and the Czech Republic for rare state visits late last year.

Vuong, head of the Party’s Inspection Commission and standing member of its Secretariat, seldom leaves Hanoi and certainly not for tours of European capitals.

But with a quinquennial National Congress looming in January 2021 at which the Party’s next leadership will be decided, all prospective candidates are bidding to raise their profiles, both at home and abroad.

Despite having the support of Party chief and President Nguyen Phu Trong, the one-party state’s most powerful politician who will retire next year, anti-corruption czar Vuong is no shoo-in to succeed Trong.

Vuong’s candidacy is clearly coming into view. Viewed as a novice in economics and foreign affairs, Vuong likely aimed to burnish his credentials in both aspects on his European tour.

At home, analysts expect him to appear more regularly on state television and at public events in 2020 to better familiarize himself with the Vietnamese public.

Deputy Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam Tran Quoc Vuong in France, October 26, 2019. Photo: AFP/Francois Lo Presti

His main competition for the Party chief post is incumbent Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, a technocratic and non-ideological candidate. But the political balance inside the highly opaque Communist Party quickly and frequently shifts.

Last year, the string-pulling head of the Central Organization Commission, Pham Minh Chinh, was thought to be a top-three contender but his popularity has apparently since waned and is no longer apparently in the running.

Attention has since turned to National Assembly chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan as an alternative middle-way candidate, according to Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

Ordinarily, the choice of who becomes the next Party chief is made at Party plenums in the year leading up to a National Congress. But if a decision isn’t made by the last plenum of 2020, it could be left to delegates at the National Congress to decide, as happened in 2016.

There is plenty of potential for intra-Party indecision and disagreement. Not only is debate heating up over economic and foreign policy directions but there are also contentious issue of intra-Party protocol.

According to Party rules, candidates must be under the age of 65 to take one of the Party’s four top posts – Party chief, prime minister, president and head of the National Assembly – and must have served at least one, though ideally two, terms in the 19-member Politburo.

But just seven current Politburo members will be under 65 years in 2021 and all are fringe figures. Vuong will be 68 in 2021; Phuc and Ngan will be a year younger.

US President Donald Trump listens to Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. Photo: AFP via Sputnik/Iliya Pitalev

That said, the Party has shown a willingness to offer age-limit exemptions at recent elections – Trong was 71 when re-elected as Party chief in 2016 – and a new resolution issued by the Politburo on October 8, signed by Vuong, grants more exceptions for age limits ahead of the 13th National Congress.

At the same time, there are also questions about whether Trong still has the clout to serve as king-maker after his recent ill-health. Trong suffered a stroke last April and reportedly has not fully recovered, potentially undermining his ability to impose his political will as an ailing lame duck.

Internal party decisions made this year won’t only decide who takes the reins in 2021, but will also settle which intra-Party patronage networks and factions will have the upper hand after the Congress.

Intra-Party Divisions have intensified over Trong’s and Vuong’s anti-corruption purge, which some view as favoring their faction over others.

“The anti-corruption campaign is viewed by the general public as legitimate,” said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“However, this is not the case among sections of the power elite who have been marginalized since 2016, this includes entrenched vested interests and those who profited during [former Prime Minister] Nguyen Tan Dung’s second term in office,” he said.

Trong failed to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York in late September and did not make a widely expected visit to the United States in October. If his health appears to decline in 2020, it could give Party moderates and their favored candidates an edge.

As anti-corruption czar, Vuong has made some powerful Party enemies who will be keen to prevent his promotion, according to Hai Hong Nguyen, associate researcher at the Center for Policy Futures at Australia’s University of Queensland.

There are also signs that Trong is starting to lose his grip. Since 2016, he has pushed the idea of building a “strategic cadre” who are ideologically clean, imbued with socialist “morals” and uncorrupted. In that direction, Trong plans to cut Party membership by one-tenth by 2021.

Vietnam’s President and Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong chairing a meeting of senior officials in Hanoi. Photo: Vietnam News Agency via AFP Forum

A list of 200 strategic cadre candidates for the next Central Committee was decided last year but, according to Hai, it wasn’t publicly announced at the last plenum of the year in October.

That could mean it is being revised and debated. If there are any major changes to the list, it would weaken Trong’s ability to influence future politics and Vuong’s chances of winning the Party’s top position.

Another question is whether the posts of Party chief and state president will be permanently merged – as they are in China – after Trong replaced the deceased Tran Dai Quang in 2018.

That would break with decades of Party custom and end the so-called “four pillar” separation of powers between the top four positions along with prime minister and National Assembly chair.

Trong took the controversial step of becoming state president as well as Party general secretary in late 2018, though many analysts argued this was for expediency to allow him more power in foreign affairs and to prevent power struggles two years before a National Congress.

If the positions are separated again in 2021, then “Vuong has a good chance” of taking a top-four spot, said Hai. But his chances won’t be as strong if the positions are permanently merged, he added.

Indeed, if faced with the option of a new dual position that gives even more power to just one politician, Central Committee members will probably opt for a more unifying candidate, which would likely be Phuc.

Otherwise, by choosing Vuong, they would be giving extraordinary power to a sectarian and relatively inexperienced politician who has accumulated power through a divisive anti-corruption campaign.

Stacks of the Vietnamese currency, the dong, are counted out by a bank employee in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Whoever takes over from Trong will also have to decide what to do about the anti-graft drive. Vuong, as its standard-bearer, would likely aim to maintain its trajectory. But if Phuc or Ngan become Party chief, it would likely be tempered, analysts suggest.

Trong’s campaign has been far-reaching and has dismantled some of the largest known corruption networks inside the Party, bringing down his former rival and two-term Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s protégés in the process.

“Vuong would most definitely continue to press the anti-corruption campaign. It is the signature tune for Secretary General Trong and his supporters,” said Thayer. “It is also a useful vehicle for discouraging individuals who might try to challenge the personnel selection policies being developed for the next Party Congress.”

But some of Dung’s allies and other known rent-seekers remain in powerful positions, including inside the politburo. Nguyen Van Binh, the current head of the Party’s Central Economics Department, shared close relations with Dung’s patronage networks in his previous position as central bank governor.

There is also Hoang Trung Hai, secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee and a former deputy prime minister with known ties to Dung, though recent reports suggest he could be disciplined for economic mismanagement and possibly even removed from the Politburo.

Other Dung allies have kept their heads low and tried to wait out the anti-corruption campaign.

“Trong’s anti-corruption campaign has not brought the country past a point of no-return regarding the rent-seeking state. It has brought the rent-seeking state on a correction course, but this course can be reversed anytime,” said Vuving.

National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan delivers a speech at the annual summer session of the National Assembly in Hanoi, May 22, 2017. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Given that the anti-corruption campaign has been popular with the public and provides the undemocratic Party with some popular legitimacy, any leader after 2021 will need to at least maintain lip-service to fighting graft.

But Phuc is no anti-corruption crusader and as a technocrat understands that, if managed, graft can just as readily grease the wheels of the economy as it imperils development.

Ngan has been more vocal against corruption but she isn’t associated with Trong’s campaign in the same way as Vuong. She would also have to count on support of Party members who are keen to downgrade the anti-corruption campaign to become Party leader.

It’s along these factional and ideological lines that the fight for Vietnam’s next leadership will be waged, behind closed doors and out of public view, in the weeks and months ahead.

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