News / Asia

Political Rivalry May Change Leadership in One-Party Vietnam

Politburo member Truong Tan Sang, right, reads a document while Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung looks on at the opening ceremony of the 11th National Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Hanoi, Vietnam on January 12, 2011
Politburo member Truong Tan Sang, right, reads a document while Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung looks on at the opening ceremony of the 11th National Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Hanoi, Vietnam on January 12, 2011
Marianne Brown

Vietnam's National Assembly held an election for its top leaders this week, which some observers have said could provide a shift forward for a political system long considered mostly ceremonial.

The country's main lawmaking body, the National Assembly voted in two political rivals for the top two positions. One of them, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, was re-elected for a second five-year term. A day earlier, his rival Truong Tan Sang, second-in-command of the communist party was elected president.

Some observers say that while the new leadership is unlikely to herald a revolution in the one-party state's political system, the rivalry between the two men could nevertheless mark important changes.    

On the surface, the competition for leadership in communist Vietnam is very muted.  There was only one candidate each for the top jobs.

Hoang Tu Duy, who is a member of the banned pro-democracy group Viet Tan, says that although the elections are largely a farce, the government has to hold them to have legitimacy.

"The interesting thing is the regime has to put on this farce because it has to put on this appearance of a normal government operating under laws with elected officials and they are doing this because they have to work with the outside world with investors but also to some extent to a domestic audience," said Duy.  

Duy adds that the differences between the reality of Vietnamese politics and its public face is putting pressure on the National Assembly to start behaving as the highest organ of the people, which is how it is described in the constitution.

Martin Gainsborough from the University of Bristol says it is unrealistic to impose liberal values on the election process. Gainsborough says those who hold office are seen as talented people from good families with good backgrounds and they do not need to prove themselves in the eyes of the public.

"Parliament can be seen in that same way, that it's a formal confirmation of the merits of these people, not a competitive electoral contest where may the best candidate win," Gainsborough noted.

As inflation hits 22 percent year-on-year and the international community continues to be dismayed by Vietnam's dismal human rights record, the politicians certainly have their work cut out for them over the next five years.

In his first term as prime minister, Dung, 61, faced a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly about the collapse of ship-building firm Vinashin, which last year defaulted on debts of $4.5 billion. He was also sued by human rights lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu about controversial Chinese-run bauxite mines in the Central Highlands

Nevertheless, Dung is a resourceful leader, says Ernest Bower, U.S. chair of the Advisory Council on Competitiveness for the Vietnamese Prime Minister.

"I think he has a certain charisma," Bower explained.  "He has been pretty careful about trying to guide economic reform within a system where such an approach does cause suspicion among political rivals so I think he has had measured success in that effort."

In run-up to the Party Congress, which determines the top jobs, Truong Tan Sang made a bid to take Dung's job, but failed.  Despite this, says Gower says he does not believe it will cause tension because they have worked together in the past.

Duy disagrees. He says differences could lead to more debate in the National Assembly. He points to the example of the assembly's rejection of a $56 billion high-speed train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City because of its cost.

"I think the spirited debate we will see in the National Assembly is going to come from a number of reasons. One of the reasons is differences in the politburo spilling into the National Assembly, for instance in the case of the bullet train," Duy added.

Duy says the assembly only blocked the proposal because the politburo was not able to come to decision about the train.  Competition between the top leaders will mean these kinds of debates will continue into the future.

Gainsborough says that, although the two men may have differing views on major issues, that is unlikely to forge a dramatic change in policy-making.  As an example, he points to negotiations with China about competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.

There would be no "fork in the road" for Vietnam over the dispute, Gainsborough says, even though the government has received criticism for its handling of the issue from several high profile public figures.

"Different personalities can bring different things to the table in terms of nuance, but in broad terms Vietnam does not want to have a bad, antagonistic relationship with China, this huge country on its doorstep, but obviously it does want to find ways to hold its own," Gainsborough noted.

Gainsborough says politics in Vietnam is not about personalities and rivalries. Instead, the landscape is made up of factions united through personal relationships rather than ideology. Serving in government involves jockeying for positions behind senior leaders.

"The absolute key driver of politics in Vietnam is to position yourself in order to make money through a variety of means," Gainsborough added.  "That explains so much of what goes on in Vietnam. Public offices are routes for private advancement that is how people view public office. It doesn't mean people are flagrantly fleecing the system, but there is a close connection between holding public office and private gain."

Whether relations between the two men worsen in the coming months, analysts say their rivalry is unlikely to revolutionize the face of Vietnamese politics. They say what is more likely to drive substantive political changes is public pressure to reform an ailing economic system that threatens to put more people into poverty.

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