Vietnam kicks off secretive political transition

Cat Barton

Hanoi (AFP) - Vietnam began a crucial political transition Thursday as the five-yearly Communist Party congress convened to pick new leaders amid a bitter factional fight, the outcome of which could set the pace of key economic reforms.

Police closed roads and jammed mobile phone signals as communist leaders and some 1,500 party delegates met in Hanoi for week-long closed-door talks.

The country's top three positions -- party general secretary, president and prime minister -- are up for grabs.

As delegates gathered in a vast hall under portraits of revolutionary leaders Ho Chi Minh, Marx and Lenin, there were indications that the party old guard would push out pro-market leaning reformers led by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

"Nguyen Tan Dung's political career can be declared 'clinically dead,'" one senior communist party official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

Dung, who presided over Vietnam joining the World Trade Organization and the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, had been tipped by analysts to move up to the powerful position of party general secretary.

While many cautioned it was too early to rule him out entirely, they said his name does not appear on a leaked list of candidates for the top leadership posts.

Any sidelining of Dung would be a victory for incumbent party leader Nguyen Phu Trong -- a conservative apparatchik who has been manoeuvring to extend his term and install allies in top positions.

"The path of socialism is still suitable to the reality in Vietnam," Trong, who is seen as closer to Beijing, said as he opened the meeting Thursday.

Dissidents had warned that Dung risked becoming "Vietnam's Putin" if he was promoted to party leader, in reference to his hanging on to power beyond the two-term limit he has served as Prime Minister.

Despite prior allegations of corruption, he is the preferred choice for the top post of most foreign investors, eager for greater access to the rapidly growing consumer market of some 90 million people.

- Slow economic reforms? -

To ordinary Vietnamese the congress is a bloated re-run of internal party battles with little bearing on their day-to-day lives.

"I don't like any of this country's leaders but if I could choose, I'd pick the business-minded ones," Duc Trung, 37, told AFP, rather than the ideologues "with their theories which have no bearing on reality".

Yet if the star of 66-year-old Dung wanes, analysts say it will be bad news for reformers and the Vietnamese economy.

While neither side is likely to dramatically change course, Dung's faction is broadly more competent and pro-market.

"With Dung, the country will move much further and much more quickly," on issues like market reforms, free trade deals, and security ties with the US, Vietnam expert Carl Thayer told AFP.

Dung is also seen as more outspoken on a maritime dispute with China, which this week moved an oil rig into waters claimed by Hanoi.

"China always keeps up the pressure on the Vietnamese leadership, especially before and during the party congress," said Duong Danh Dy, a retired Vietnamese diplomat who spent 14 years at the embassy in Beijing.

China last moved the rig into contested waters in 2014, triggering protests and riots in Vietnam that left at least three people dead, and prompting Hanoi to move closer to its former wartime foe the United States.

The party congress will also approve a five-year economic blueprint, which will seek to build on recent impressive economic growth of nearly seven percent annually, a rate that is one of Asia's strongest.

With a slew of foreign trade agreements including the US-led TPP pact ahead, experts and foreign investors are urging Vietnam's leadership to pursue long-stalled domestic reforms.

Those include overhauling the banking sector and moving more aggressively on privatising state-owned companies.