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All Eyes On Vietnam Party Congress


In less than half a century Vietnam has risen from the ashes of war to being a regional economic powerhouse that even the coronavirus couldn’t stop.
Vietnam’s Party Congress beginning on Monday will elect the country’s next leaders and unveil its economic goals. Held amid a pandemic and uncertain geopolitical winds, the once in five years event is also widely seen as a coming-of-age moment for Vietnam, given its effective handling of the coronavirus and the strong growth of its economy in recent years.
While the case for the Southeast Asian country to be considered a rising middle power is growing, experts warn it faces challenges ahead, among them tackling bureaucratic inertia, corruption and nepotism and restructuring the economy.
When the great and good of the Communist Party of Vietnamassemble for the weeklong 13th National Congress, it will be to take decisions that will reverberate far beyond the borders of this Southeast Asian country of nearly 100 million people.

Some 1,600 delegates from across the country will travel to Hanoi to attend the meeting, which lasts until February 2, to select a new leadership for one of the world’s fastest growing economies – and one that has increasingly found itself caught in the middle of the crossfire between the United States and China, its two biggest trade partners. 
Beijing, Hanoi’s communist bedfellow, and Washington, its Cold War foe with whom ties are warming, will both be watching closely for an insight into the direction the country is taking. The US, in particular, has made no secret of its hope that it can draw Vietnam into its orbit by touting it as an alternative global manufacturing base to China.

Against this background, there are two key areas to watch. One is the leadership battle that will pitch two factions with different visions for the country against each other. The second is the five-year economic plan that Congress will be expected to approve.
While the leadership battle will ostensibly be waged in a series of votes – delegates will select a Central Committee, which will in turn pick a politburo and from that the general secretary – Bill Hayton, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, described the Congress as a “brutal battle for power” in which the real action took place behind closed doors months, or even years before the meeting itself.
He said that since the last Congress the fight had been between “loyalists” who believed the party must remain Vietnam’s supreme source of power and “liberalisers” who were willing to tolerate more flexibility in the drive for economic development.
Vietnam officially has a leadership made up of “four pillars” – the general secretary, prime minister, president and chair of the National Assembly. However, the general secretary is widely seen as the single most powerful person.
 At present Nguyen Phu Trong, 72, is both general secretary and president, but he is expected to step down due to health issues and is thought to favour handing over to his protégé Tran Quoc Vuong, 67, the head of the party’s central office who spearheaded Trong’s aggressive anti-corruption campaign.
Vuong’s biggest rival for the top spot is likely to be the current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, 66, a technocrat who has received widespread recognition for his role in the country’s effective handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Age could be a complicating factor, as the mandatory retirement age is supposed to be 65. Carl Thayer, professor emeritus of politics at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, said that while an exemption had been made for Trong in 2016 due to his “exceptional performance”, it was “highly unlikely he will be reappointed to a third term” due to the stroke he reportedly suffered in 2019.
 While both Vuong and Phuc are also over the age limit, Thayer said a compromise had been reached under which both would receive exemptions.
Were Phuc to take the top job, his ascent would leave the economically focused prime minister role open. Pham Minh Chinh, an apparatchik who heads the party’s organisation committee, has emerged as one candidate to replace him, although Chinh does not appear to have such broad economic experience as those who have previously held the role. 
If selected, Chinh would be the first Vietnamese prime ministerr not to have previously served as a deputy prime minister. Another possible candidate with broader economic qualifications who could also be in the running to become prime minister would be Vuong Dinh Hue, a former deputy prime minister who is currently secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee.
Hayton said the fight between loyalists and liberalisers would continue no matter what happened in the leadership battle and that either way, “the outcome is likely to be more of the same: increasing economic opening combined with ongoing political authoritarianism.”
Those seeking to read the tea leaves might do better to look further down the ranks of the leadership shuffle.
Linh Nguyen, associate director with the risk consultancy Control Risks, said the big changes could occur at ministerial and provincial government level.
“This is where we might see changes in policies that will define the country’s economic development strategy in the next five years”, Linh said.
Unlike Thayer, she felt there was a lingering concern that the party’s charter could be amended to allow Trong to remain as general secretary.
“If so, this would create a precedent for future leaders who might take advantage of it for personal benefit rather than for the good of the country,” Linh warned.
If Trong does not step down, he will become the longest-serving general secretary since Le Duan, who ruled with an iron fist after the death of Vietnam’s founding revolutionary Ho Chi Minh.
As Covid-19 travel restrictions ease, first commercial planes depart from Japan for Vietnam
As Covid-19 travel restrictions ease, first commercial planes depart from Japan for Vietnam
The country’s success in tackling the coronavirus has not only raised Phuc’s profile, but that of the country more widely.
As well as burnishing its credentials for competent governance, its strong showing against the virus has converted into economic gains that made Vietnam one of the few countries in the world to post positive growth last year – strengthening the argument of those who say it should be viewed as a rising middle power.
Since sealing itself off to the world last March, the country’s strict monitoring systems, mandatory quarantine periods and extensive coronavirus testing have won it praise from around the globe.
The World Health Organizationcredited the country as having moved forward to a “safe coexistence with Covid-19” in which it had achieved the dual objectives of disease control and economic development.

Lye Liang Fook, a senior fellow and coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said this had allowed Hanoi to focus on regaining growth momentum.
“Vietnam’s economy grew 2 to 3 per cent in 2020, which is a very positive development in view of the negative growth in many other countries,” Lye said.­­­­
This year, Vietnam’s economy is expected to grow more than 6 per cent, a development that will solidify its claims to be Asia’s “rising star”.

Courtesy – SCMP

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