Trong lords it over party meeting

Nguyen Phu Trong (centre) increasingly calls the shots in Vietnam’s not so collective leadership. President Tran Dai Quang (right) no longer appears in public following persistent reports of ill health.

As a committed ideologue set on reviving the Communist party, Nguyen Phu Trong, appears to be reaching the apotheosis of his ambitions.

Presiding over this week’s plenum of the party’s Central Committee, he looks set to consolidate his ever tightening grip on power and place his own loyalists in vacant leadership positions.

Vietnam’s much vaunted system of “collective leadership” has become unbalanced since Nguyen Phu Trong secured a second term as general-secretary of the party in 2016, and dispatched his hated rival, the long serving prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, to political oblivion.

With two posts on the politburo now vacant, plus possibly the position of state president, Mr Trong will be able to demonstrate the extent of his control over the party and state apparatus.

Mr Trong has cowed potential opponents with a hitherto unsuspected ruthlessness, hunting down offending officials high and low with a precisely targeted anti-corruption campaign.

He is also attempting to restore party discipline and ideological rectitude with a morality campaign aimed at party hacks who thrived in the get-rich-quick atmosphere of the Dung administrations.

Brasher politicians

One position on the Politburo became available when a former rising star in the party, and Dung protege, Dinh La Thang, was dismissed and prosecuted for corruption.

The other became vacant when another potential party leader, Dinh The Huynh, stepped down because of undisclosed health problems.

Speculation is now rife that the current President, Tran Dai Quang, will also resign because of ill-health.

Mr Trong is expected to seize the opportunity to frame his own succession, widely expected in 2021, by placing acolytes in key positions.

Some analysts suggest the recently promoted party chief in Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen Thien Nhan, could become president.

He is seen as a relatively dull apparatchik of the old school, a stark contrast to the brasher more self-confident politicians in the mould of Thang and Dung that had been emerging.

Nguyen Phu Trong is attempting to turn the clock back in Vietnam, to a time when the Communist party leadership had some ideological coherence and did not tolerate dissent from within or outside the party ranks.

He has so far confounded the critics and sceptics with the vigour of his actions – but doubts remain about the achievability of his goal in a society where Marxist orthodoxy long ago withered and died.