HANOI, VIETNAM - Vietnam's Communist Party chief easily won a seat on a key committee Tuesday, the first step toward retaining his position as head of the collective leadership of the country.
General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong secured more than 80 percent of the votes from delegates at a party congress to win election to the Central Committee, one of the two pillars of the ruling establishment, several delegates said.
He is now expected to be elected to the new Politburo, considered a formality in the orchestrated transition of power that happens once every five years. The Communist Party is entitled by the constitution to govern and Vietnam's 93 million people have no direct role in the election of the party leaders.
Trong's election was not without hiccups. He faced a brief challenge from Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, his No. 2 who had ambitions for the top post. But Dung effectively withdrew from the contest, clearing the way for Trong.
Dung is seen as a pro-business leader who investors believe would have continued with economic reforms he set in motion 10 years ago. He is also seen as being capable of standing his ground in case of a confrontation with China, which has been aggressively making territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Trong is seen as pro-China and an economic conservative. Analysts say Trong's election might slow down the pace of reforms, but not stall them. He's also unlikely to be subservient to China as some fear.
Trong was among 180 who were elected to the Central Committee. The others included Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who is poised to become the next prime minister, and Public Security Minister Tran Dai Quang, who will likely secure the presidency.
On Wednesday, Central Committee members will elect the all-powerful Politburo, which handles the day-to-day governance of Vietnam. Its membership is expected to increase to 18 from the current 16.
Of the Politburo members, one will be chosen general secretary. Three others will be chosen prime minister, president and chairman of the National Assembly, in order of seniority.
Trong had been trying unsuccessfully for years to sideline Dung, and while contests for the top post are not unheard of, they are usually settled well ahead of the party congress.
Regardless of who is in power, the government's policies will not change radically, analysts say.
Dung, who rose through the ranks of the party and held senior positions, is a two-term prime minister. His economic reforms have helped Vietnam attract a flood of foreign investment and helped triple the per capita GDP to $2,100 over the past 10 years.
Trong's camp accuses Dung of economic mismanagement, including the spectacular collapse of state-owned shipping company Vinashin; failing to control massive public debt; allowing corruption; and not dealing adequately with the non-preforming loans of state-owned banks.
Vietnam is one of the last remaining Communist nations in the world, with a party membership of 4.5 million. But like its ideological ally China, the government believes in a quasi-free market economy alongside strictly controlled politics and society.