Creative, young, loyal: Hanoi eyes future leaders

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 April, 2006, 12:00am

Marx and Lenin may glower from giant portraits hanging over Vietnam's Communist Party congress this week, but a very different breed of leader is being sought.

Younger, brighter, cleaner and more creative - that is the message from party delegates as they plot changes to re-energise its collective leadership after 20 years of stuttering reforms.

A host of relatively young contenders have come to the fore after months of closed-door jockeying - all veterans of the system if not the shadowy ideological heavies of the recent past.

All eyes this week are on Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. His boss, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, now 72, is almost certain to step down after nine successful, if bruising years of reform battles throughout the government.

Still only 56 - a spring chicken in Hanoi's political ranks - Mr Dung was the youngest leader in years to make the Politburo when he joined the ruling body in the mid-1990s.

Since then he has gathered experience as a deputy minister in the interior ministry - a body responsible for domestic security, an issue close to the hearts of party elders.

He has also been building a reputation as an economic manager, working with Mr Khai on reforms, including a spell running the state bank as it sought to give domestic banks more autonomy. His deputy post has also allowed him to forge a wide range of regional and international contacts.

Described as boyish, dynamic and charismatic in private, Mr Dung hails from the Ca Mau Peninsula on Vietnam's southeastern tip.

'We are still waiting for Dung to fully establish his credentials as an out-and-out reformer,' said one Asian diplomat who knows him. 'What we can see is that he is a pragmatist who knows how to work within the system ... that is important for anyone who wants to get things done here.

'He may be young and dynamic, but he is still a creature of the system.'

Party political sources said Communist Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh was expected to stay in his post, while President Tran Duc Luong, about to hit 70, was expected to retire.

Mr Manh's tenure has been marked by consensus-building in various party camps that has ensured the reform process is on a stronger footing.

The president is expected to be replaced by Nguyen Minh Triet, the party's chief in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's economic hub and its biggest city. Mr Triet, 64, has had a key hand in developing industry and foreign investment in provinces around the city and has strong reformist credentials. If confirmed, he is expected to raise the profile of the presidency, which has been largely symbolic under Mr Luong.

His Hanoi counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong is also expected to rise.

As debates rage over leadership posts, one thing is certain - the role of the leading troika will not get any easier. The new leaders must find ways of tackling endemic corruption and raise transparency in the party and government while driving modernisation - Vietnam wants to pull itself fully out of poverty within four years.

Having posted 8.4 per cent growth last year, Vietnam's is the fastest-growing economy in Southeast Asia. But with 83 million people, 60 per cent aged under 30, its population is also the fastest-growing. That means increasing numbers of young people entering the job market each year, many with high political, financial and social expectations.

Foreign and domestic businessmen warn that Vietnam could be growing even faster were it not for dogged bureaucrats and red tape that stand in the way of the top leaders' best intentions. The country's likely entry to the World Trade Organisation is expected to heighten those pressures.

Hanoi-based British academic Martin Gainsborough recently told a group of foreign investors that the importance of generational change could not be underestimated as the country opened up. 'We predict that issues which were once non-negotiable ... will gradually come onto the agenda,' he said.