Gossip and intrigue in Vietnam on who's in ... and out

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 March, 2006, 12:00am

It is known as the art of 'Kremlinology', Hanoi-style.

Once every five years, the businesspeople, diplomats and scholars watching Vietnam's leadership start to plot the possible changes ahead of the Communist Party's congress. The game of who's up and who's down involves rounds of gossip and intrigue - and not always a great deal of fact.

The extent of the back-room machinations was highlighted when a dead man, nuclear scientist Nguyen Dinh Tu, was elected to the Politburo in 1996. Tipped for a senior post, he collapsed and died two days before the official vote.

Given the secrecy that still hangs over the highest levels of the Communist Party, the run-up to the 10th Congress is proving little different.

All eyes are on Prime Minister Phan Van Khai as preparatory meetings intensify. Now 72, and having been in power since 1997, Mr Khai is expected to step down when the congress convenes late next month or in May.

Who replaces him is not simply a matter of court intrigue - it is an issue that cuts to the heart of Vietnam's future.

With a population of 82 million - the second biggest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia - Vietnam needs fast economic growth to avoid going backwards. An estimated 60 per cent of the population are under 30 - a fact that means increasing numbers of young people enter the job market each year, many clutching rising social, financial and even political expectations. Reforms are at a crucial stage.

A Soviet-trained economist-turned-reformer, Mr Khai has played a big part in the process so far. After ideological wrangles with party hardliners and false starts, his reform programme has recently borne fruit. The country has posted the fastest economic growth in a decade of 8.4 per cent, domestic and foreign investment are both up, and consumer confidence is soaring. The fledgling stock market is finally attracting serious local and foreign attention.

A strong year was capped by his visit to the White House as the first modern Vietnamese leader to head to Washington. His smile was broad as he rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange - a big moment for a leader who joined the revolutionary forces in southern Vietnam when he was 15.

Mr Khai's views and goals for the future are clear. 'The next 20 years will be a period for stepping up and deepening reform,' he said recently, 'to turn Vietnam into an industrial country by 2020'.

His predecessor, mentor and fellow southerner, former prime minister Vo Van Kiet, was blunter. In rare comments to a Vietnamese business paper, Mr Kiet warned against complacency.

'Our people ask for a new breakthrough [in reforms],' he told Dau Tu [Investment] paper late last month. 'I highly appreciate the country's renewal process over the past 20 years ... but I think we cannot be satisfied with those results yet.'

The relatively young Nguyen Tan Dung is widely considered a frontrunner as a replacement to Mr Khai. Mr Dung, 55, is already a veteran of the ruling Politburo, having served as a deputy interior minister - a sensitive if secretive post - and deputy prime minister, his current position.

Hailing from Ca Mau on the far southern tip of the country, Mr Dung is understood to have strong internal party credentials as well as building a reputation as a reformer under Mr Khai's watch. He has been responsible for economic and internal affairs and also served as an acting head of the State Bank during a crucial reform period.

If Mr Dung stumbles, insiders are watching Vu Khoan, his fellow deputy PM. Mr Khoan is respected after years as a top diplomat and trade representative, driving Vietnam's international trade and foreign policy negotiations. In his mid-60s, age is not on Mr Khoan's side but he is widely regarded as being a safe, 'clean' leader of considerable integrity in a bureaucracy plagued by corruption.

Whoever replaces Mr Khai will not have their hands fully on the levers of power, however. Vietnam has long been ruled by collective leadership.

Party elders seek to spread power across a range of abilities and backgrounds. Southerners are balanced against northerners, conservatives against reformers and military leaders against police and civilians.

Nominally the most powerful position is the general secretary of the Communist Party, held by Nong Duc Manh. A Soviet-trained forester, Mr Manh has evolved into a relatively popular consensus-based leader. Aged 65, his tenure has been marked by apparent pragmatism.

Rumours that he is the child of Vietnam's revolutionary father Ho Chi Minh, who never married, have aided Mr Manh's domestic popularity. He has neither confirmed nor denied the gossip.

'All Vietnamese are the children of Ho Chi Minh,' he once said with a wry smile.

President Tran Duc Luong is also expected to remain in his largely symbolic post. In terms of promotions, Vietnamese sources are also closely watching Nguyen Van An, the progressive president of the National Assembly, Vietnam's law-making body.

Mr An won local and international respect for turning the body from a rubber stamp to a more meaningful legislature. Mr An, too, is considered incorruptible. Of all the qualities the party bosses look for during the jostling ahead, few are so important as the party seeks to secure its grip on power.