Vietnam’s recently concluded Party Congress, which appeared to mark the end of protracted and tense process of leadership succession, is perhaps more appropriately seen as the beginning of a generational shift in the country’s top leadership, rather than an indication of where the country is heading. After a tense and unprecedentedly visible succession process, a mood of anti-climax has quickly settled in. For all the excitement and intrigue it generated, the 12th Party Congress came to an abrupt, air-sucking end.
What happened? Through a mix of procedural means and clever politicking that took many by surprise, sitting Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and his supporters ably short-circuited and, by appearances, effectively ended the political career of the self-styled and now outgoing political maverick, Nguyen Tan Dung. Vietnam’s Prime Minister served two terms, and his period in office generated a mix of high hopes, dashed hopes, raised eyebrows, and resentment. Dung’s period in office saw Vietnam’s growth lose momentum, but then regain that momentum.
Widely labeled a reformer, the outgoing Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s record never squarely fit that characterization. Mostly, Dung was a smooth politician who built up a powerful patronage network and initiated reforms that promoted the interests of well-placed persons and foreign investors, sometimes to the detriment of the country’s economic performance. Dung projected himself as being committed to a more open and democratic Vietnam, while his critics dismissed such a possibility. Be that as it may, Prime Minister’s style and wit led many Vietnamese to see his bid for the Secretary General Position as a bid for a new direction in Vietnamese politics which, though imperfect, would at the very least bring change.
Instead, the opposite has occurred. Had he emerged victorious, Vietnamese state-controlled press would likely be hailing a new day in the country’s politics, much to the chagrin of party conservatives. Today, it is the party conservatives who are smiling, while the state-run press is awash with photos of Nguyen Phu Trong being congratulated by his handpicked clutch of appointees. These include appointees to the key posts of Prime Minister, State President, and President of the National Assembly. By contrast, images of Nguyen Tan Dung have him either standing stoically by or heading for the exits. Never a good look.
So whereto from here? Within Vietnam, in the country’s lively cyberspace, and in the international press, the result of the leadership succession is seen as a vote for continuity within the Party. This is, in many respects, a reasonable conclusion. After all it was Trong, however doctrinaire and ridiculed, who has prevailed. It is he who insisted that he stay on for two more years and it is he who got his wish. As it stands, General Secretary Trong will remain in his position for an additional two years. Still, it unclear who would replace him, or whether the secretary will be able to directly select or otherwise determine his successor. As such, the direction and spirit of Vietnam’s elite politics remains an open question.
There are other signs of continuity. One example in the abundance of public security and party watchdogs in the newly selected Politburo. Notably, Vietnam’s newly anointed state president and symbolic leader hails from the Ministry of Public Security. As for selections to the other top two leadership posts, the positions of Prime Minister and National Assembly President these include, respectively, a rather non-descript bureaucratic from the country’s central region whose appointment is seen in part as a bow to sentiments for regional balance, and a southerner (who is also female) who has a demonstrated competence in social affairs though has yet to distinguish herself otherwise. Perhaps the most important underlying continuity is the organization of the upper tiers of Vietnam’s political system itself. While an outgoing Minister of Planning called for ‘urgent political reforms’ Vietnam will remain a country ruled by committee. In this respect Vietnam differs from virtually every other country in the world.
Nor should we be too fast to assume the leadership succession will lead Vietnam to somehow slow down. In addition to the police and party watchdogs mentioned above, the new politburo has a number of younger, able, and energetic members, representing such key policy areas as finance and foreign affairs, just to name two. Moreover, the broader spirit of Vietnamese politics is, however halting, not one of inaction. The country’s leadership is committed to internationalization and expanding and deepening ties, even as they act to ensure doing so does not threaten the Party’s long-term interests. With all four of Vietnam’s top leaders having visited the US within the last year and with the entire politburo and central committee recognizing the US and an indispensable trading and security partner, it is clear that times have changed, even with a conservative at the helm, and even in the absence of Nguyen Tan Dung.
Most people who know Vietnam believe the country’s economy should be performing better than it has. It is almost certain that the Party’s leadership recognizes this fact and one should not presume that, while the newly selected leadership are not reformers, they will not take at least some tangible steps to shore up weaknesses in the areas of transparency, infrastructure, and skilled workers and so on. Whether the steps taken will be the right steps or effective in their implementation is another question. But Vietnam has a lot going for it. While its state has been weakened by overzealous decentralization and commercialization, Vietnam is a society is dynamic and, one would hope, still full of promise.
What is perhaps most uncertain is how Nguyen Phu Trong, the politburo, the Party Central Committee, and the Vietnamese people will cope with Beijing, and how Beijing itself will conduct itself in the boiling maritime dispute that is rapidly leading to the militarization of the entire region. Nguyen Phu Trong has in the past been someone who has advocated a conciliatory approach toward China. Indeed, it is in Vietnam’s best interest to have as good relations with Beijing as is possible. There is much to gain from good relations and a great deal to loose from bad ones. Yet maintaining neighborly relations has become a huge challenge, even for Trong. Backed into a corner, Vietnamese will defend their country.
So where do we stand? With this selection of leaders, will Vietnam take steps backwards? I would say no. While there are many in Vietnam who are clamoring for change, they increasingly recognize that change by way of reforms is unlikely to come solely or even mainly from the top. Indeed, Vietnam’s people are now politically engaged and are demanding reform and greater transparency, and the state is slowly responding. Vietnam now features a quasi-liberal brand of authoritarianism that, while still tarnished by regular human rights abuses, at the very least allows space for open discussion of social and political issues. Does the country have a bloated security apparatus? Absolutely. And I worry about how that will be reined in.
In the meantime and for the foreseeable future, Vietnam’s economy will continue to grow and is likely to grow rapidly. It is how to maximize the quality of that growth and how to ensure that that growth translates into benefits and opportunities for the Vietnamese people that is the key issue, along with promoting the country’s security and sovereignty. One hopes and expects Vietnam’s leadership grasps these challenges. Let us see how they respond.