Vietnam Provides Nguyen Phu Trong a third Time period as Communist Chief
BANGKOK – According to the rules of the Communist Party of Vietnam, its boss should resign at the age of 65 or after two terms. The country’s dogmatic leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, would not qualify for reappointment in either case.
That didn’t stop the party from consolidating its rule, however, as it closed its five-year Congress on Monday, giving it a third term to help build unity and deter more pragmatic challengers.
Trong, 76, who was in poor health after 10 years at the head of the party, was reappointed general secretary in one of the few remaining communist dictatorships in the world. Known for his conservative ideological stance, Mr Trong has made fighting corruption a priority and has presided over a period of sustained economic growth and national success in containing the coronavirus.
Vietnam is expected, under his leadership, to pursue a foreign policy that balances Chinese and American interests while maintaining the party’s influence at home by continuing to suppress dissent by imposing long prison sentences.
“The key message is that the party will hold on to power at all costs,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at Daniel K. Inouye’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. “I don’t expect any major change in the direction of Vietnamese foreign or economic policy in the next five years.”
The Communist Party of Vietnam ruled the nation of nearly 100 million people and has ruled for more than 45 years since reunification. The leadership of the one-party state is divided into three positions: the party leader, a president who acts as head of state, and a prime minister who heads the government. Since 2018, Mr. Trong has been both party leader and president.
The party promotes a version of state capitalism that drove Vietnam to 2.91 percent economic growth despite strong headwinds from the coronavirus pandemic last year. That was a decline of more than 7 percent in the past two years, but one of the highest growth rates in the world.
Vietnam is among the most successful countries in containing the coronavirus, with strict border controls, wearing masks, contact tracing and isolating infected people. Before a recent outbreak, almost two months had passed without a case of local transmission, and only 1,817 cases and 35 deaths were reported.
A new study by the independent Lowy Institute in Australia ranked second in the world behind New Zealand in terms of the first nine months of the pandemic, after New Zealand.
With regard to China, Vietnam has close, but occasionally difficult, relationships with its huge communist neighbor to the north, who are seeking to expand their influence in the South China Sea. Analysts predict Vietnam’s relations with China will remain robust, but Vietnam will continue to seek better relations with the United States to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
Granting Mr. Trong a third term of five years to deal with these issues as Secretary General meant breaking the party’s rules, limiting him to two terms, and foregoing the age limit for the third time.
“The party aims to project an image of unity, solidarity and strength to prevent internal clashes between factions,” said Tuong Vu, an expert on modern Vietnamese history and politics at the University of Oregon.
Mr. Trong represents a conservative Marxist-Leninist faction within the party that has come under increasing pressure from more pragmatic communist leaders from various factions.
Apr. 1, 2021, 5:11 p.m. ET
He had chosen a preferred subordinate as his designated successor, but the party rejected his candidate. Mr. Trong chose to remain as general secretary rather than bringing the leader of a rival faction to the top.
“Basically to me it means the failure of the party leader,” said Mr Vuving. “He had to pass the baton to another Conservative candidate, but his election was not popular with the members of the Central Committee.”
Mr Vuving predicted that Vietnam’s next leader would be less doctrinal than Mr Trong as leaders of more pragmatic factions in higher positions continue to vie for his successor.
“He’s the last Conservative to become Secretary General. It will loosen up when he’s gone, “said Mr. Vuving, calling Mr. Trong” a transition leader. “
The week-long party conference in Hanoi, a highly anticipated ritual, ended on Monday, a day earlier, when many members left to deal with a new coronavirus outbreak in the north-east of the country.
The rash of new cases, which could include patients with contagious variants in the UK and South Africa, is the worst to date for Vietnam. 266 new infections have been reported in the past four days.
But Vietnam has reaped the economic benefits of its overall success against the pandemic. It is benefiting from manufacturing relocations from China to other countries as large international companies seek to diversify their operations and avoid American tariffs. For example, Foxconn is building a $ 270 million plant to assemble Apple cell phones and laptops in Vietnam.
“Although they are a communist party and very conservative in Marxism-Leninism, they are an avid globalizer in economic policy,” Vuving said.
The government maintains power in part by imposing draconian prison sentences on journalists and critics who speak out against it. In the months leading up to the party congress, tough action was taken against him.
In January, three journalists – including Pham Chi Dung, founder of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam – were sentenced to between 11 and 15 years in prison. Another prominent journalist, Pham Doan Trong, was arrested in October for propaganda and dissemination. You can expect up to 20 years in prison.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said he had foreseen no end to the repression of freedom of speech as Mr. Trong remained in power.
“The re-election of hardliner Nguyen Phu Trong means that the ruling Communist Party is doubling its repression of supporters of greater democracy and human rights in Vietnam,” he said. “This congress shows how little political reform is possible in today’s Vietnam, which remains one of the most authoritarian governments in Southeast Asia.”
Mr. Trong was not only party leader, but also took over the presidency in 2018 with the death of incumbent Tran Dai Quang. Mr. Trong is expected to resign later this year when the National Assembly stamps out the new party-elected top government leaders.
In this scenario, the current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, 66, who lost his bid as General Secretary of the party, becomes President, an office that is more prestigious but less powerful than the Prime Minister.
Mr Phuc, who is considered to be more pragmatic than Mr Trong, put together a largely successful report, but in some cases was unable to raise enough support because it is from South Vietnam. Northerners have long dominated top positions.
Mr. Trong, who appears to have struggled to walk and is said to have suffered a stroke, nonetheless gave a 75-minute speech on the opening day of the congress in which he praised the country’s economic development and control over the coronavirus.
There is no formal procedure for filling his office should he step down before the end of his five-year term, but the Central Committee is expected to select a new general secretary from among senior executives.
“That could lead to a crisis because of all the uncertainties in this situation,” said Vu.
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