When it comes to Vietnam’s leadership succession, virtually all of us are in the dark. This includes not only well informed Vietnamese but, indeed, well informed Vietnamese within upper ranks of the party. Too often in the past week, both domestic and foreign observers have fallen prey to the lure of being first to report, and/or the desire for certitude about the results of Vietnam’s leadership succession process. While the desire to know is understandable, there remains no basis for certitude. The process remains undetermined and fluid. It simply ain’t over.
Foreign observers have gotten a particularly confused picture of things, mainly owing to:
(1) their failure to grasp the intricacies, pliability, and weirdness of the official rules governing the Communist Party’s succession process;
(2) their over-reliance on people who don’t know but say they do (the truth his, hardly anyone outside the process truly knows what’s going on, while even those on the inside may not know what’s going on, owing to restriction on communication with each other);
(3) confusion what has been (to be a fair) a confusing mixture of cryptic, quasi-official, and official even statements issued by certain Party officials that have variously turned out to be incomplete, incompletely true, self-serving, or all of the above; and,
(4) reliance on second- and third-hand accounts of unverifiable claims which, though sometimes appearing to be credible or plausibly credible, cannot be verified. The confusion is hardly surprising.
So where do we stand? Well, by most appearances there does appear to be a grand tussle underway. On the other hand, the world is locked out and it’s near impossible to verify anything. There are reports of intense horsetrading, such this or that faction bringing pressure to bear on individuals and groups for their support with a mix of promises and threats. While the 11th Party Congress concluded with the issuance of a list of new personnel, the 12th congress is now seated and many of its members are demanding a voice. While the sitting party-secretary Nguyen Phu Trong has appeared skillful in using procedural means to block sitting prime-minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s path to power, it now appears Dung’s supporters are mobilizing a spirited rally.
In the mean time, those in charge of the Party’s external relations continue to insist that the process is orderly one and that talk of a fractious process on the outside is nothing more than malicious rumor. Could it be?
Vietnamese cyberspace is on fire, with ‘well-founded rumors’ and leaked documents unleashing wave after wave of intrigue. From external appearances, the Party-controlled press appears to struggling with the task of reporting on all of this. On one day a leading newspaper leads with headlines of a speech at the congress calling for urgent political reforms reforms. On the next day the same paper publishes a litany of fake or suspiciously fervent comments,congratulating the Party’s outgoing 11th congress on getting things right.
But now the 12th congress has taken its seat and there are suggestions that the proverbial rice has not been cooked. All these accounts can’t be right, can they?
So, is Trong likely to ‘win?’ My best answer remains maybe. What I am slightly more certain of is advice that until the dust settles it would be wise to avoid mistaking self-serving factional chatter and even official announcements and press reports as truly indicative of the real state of play. Barring unforeseeable events, we should expect the results to be known toward the end of this week and not before. If I am wrong, so be it.
What is perhaps more useful is to recognize that while the personnel decisions being made do indeed carry major implications, the selection process itself has turned out to a major political development, even if one whose contemporary or historical significance it is too early to know.
Certainly there’s been no shortage of drama. Two leading figures contesting for power. A senior state and party official taking the podium at the congress and calling for comprehensive and urgent political reforms. A Chinese oil platform drilling off the coast. And not least the inauspiciously timed death of turtle linked to a sacred defense of the nation’s sovereignty at the Congress’s outset. And this is only the stuff we actually know. Indeed, if anything is clear, it is that Vietnam’s elite politics today are unscripted. That’s a good thing. Not because it may portend a future of more open and democratic politics. But because you couldn’t invent this stuff (i.e. write such a script) if you tried.