Back-room politics to decide leaders

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 September, 1997, 12:00am

Even by the shadowy standards of Vietnamese politics, the next fortnight is set to be the stuff of considerable intrigue.

By that time, a new prime minister and president will be in place, but doubts are likely to remain over their exact role in the omnipotent 19-member Politburo - the place where the real power lies in this country of 77 million.

The pair face the task of re-igniting reforms needed to sustain growth and will need influential Politburo slots to do it, political sources say.

The Communist Party's Central Committee has this week plumped for respected reformer and First Deputy Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to become prime minister and Deputy Prime Minister Tran Duc Luong, a geologist, for president.

In theory, the pair will be vetted and ratified in a vote in the new session of the National Assembly - Vietnam's parliament - which opens on Saturday.

Doubts are emerging that Mr Luong will make it over the remaining hurdles to the appointment, given the prospect of more back-room sessions by Communist Party chiefs over the next few days.

Instead, he could be replaced at the last minute by National Assembly chairman Nong Duc Manh.

The problem, sources say, is the military. Under Vietnam's constitution, the president is commander of the armed forces.

The military is by far the most widely respected institution of the revolution, and cannot be taken lightly after the fall of the Soviet bloc.

Mr Khai, 63, seems a certainty. An urbane Soviet-trained economist, in recent years he has become Vietnam's most respected and energetic reformer and a darling of Western aid donors.

More importantly, he is highly influential among the southern business elite whose capital drives Vietnam's growth.

Both leaders will have to work in a collective troika headed by Vietnam's top leader, Party General Secretary Do Muoi.

Mr Muoi, 80, heads a new five-man executive within the Politburo. Outgoing leaders, Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet and President Le Duc Anh, are also on the body but when and how they will be replaced on the executive remains unclear.

Certainly, the Communist Party, rather than the fledgling assembly, will be the driving force behind any changes.