Victorious Trong justifies one-party rule

The old guard celebrate their grip after a prolonged feud at the heart of power. Photo courtesy EPA.

The old guard celebrate their grip after a prolonged feud at the heart of power. Photo courtesy EPA.

The victory of the communist old guard at the 12th party congress puts an end, for now, to a protracted power struggle that has riven the top levels of the Vietnamese leadership for years.

The incumbent party boss, Nguyen Phu Trong, was named for a second five-year term as general-secretary, while fellow conservatives were nominated for the other top posts.

The scale of the victory, and what appears to be the eclipse of the more reform minded prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, was predicted by few observers until leaks started to emerge from the upper echelons of the party in recent days.

In comments after his election was announced, Mr Trong justified the continuance of one-party rule in Vietnam.

“The principle of the Communist Party of Vietnam is collective leadership with accountability and responsibility of the individual, which can never become authoritarian. Elsewhere in the world, there are examples where they say they follow democracy but decisions are made by one person,” he said.

In a call for continued “discipline” he gave little hope of an easing of repression against government critics, who face arrest and random beatings in a country where “abusing democratic freedoms” is a crime that carries a heavy jail term.

“A country without discipline would be chaotic and unstable … democracy should go alongside discipline…we need to balance between democracy and law and order, ” he said.

For pro-democracy activists and human rights campaigners, the outcome is ominous, especially in the light of escalating police repression in the months leading up to the congress.

Not many hoped for active political liberalisation in the event of a Dung victory, but they could have expected some easing of repression given his enthusiasm for a closer alignment with the United States and a more open economy.

Rise of propaganda chief ?

“I’m afraid we are going to see more of the same – more obstacles for civil society and also more difficulty enforcing the provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” said one activist lawyer from Hanoi who preferred not to be identified.

He was struck by the appearance of the party’s propaganda chief, Dinh The Huynh, on the podium celebrating the victory.

Winner and loser. Mr Dung, on the right, was outmanoeuvred by the incumbent party boss

Winner and loser. Mr Dung, on the right, was outmanoeuvred by the incumbent party boss

“There is no reason for a fifth person to be there, in addition to the four main office holders – that’s why  I predict he will be the next general-secretary. Everyone is saying that Trong will step down and be replaced half way through his term,” he said.

The rise of such a strongly ideological figure as Huynh, with no sign of any interest in political reform, could signal a prolonged chill for those struggling  to change the system.

The promotion of the hardline public security chief, Tran Dai Quang, to the position of state president underlines the breadth of the conservatives’ hold.

Mr Quang has boasted recently of his success in crushing dissent from Vietnam’s beleaguered civil society movement.

Human Rights Watch identified him, in its just released report for 2015, as a key figure in a ruthless crackdown on bloggers and other government critics.

“In November, Police General Tran Dai Quang publicly admitted that within the last three years the government had ‘received, arrested, and dealt with cases’ involving 2,680 people who violated national security and noted that ‘opposition persons’ had illegally established more than 60 human rights and democracy groups,” said the report.

It identified a disturbing new trend in which activists are attacked and beaten in the street by masked men and other agents of the security services.

“Vietnam tried to minimize political trials and convictions in 2015 to gain favour during the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, but repression against activists remained firm, with beatings increasing,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

Dirty linen

The conservative victory at the congress may also lead to even less enthusiasm for the privatisation of state enterprises and a cooling of the ardour for foreign investment.

However, observers point out that Nguyen Phu Trong and his allies have shown they can be pragmatic and are unlikely to approve a dramatic reversal of economic or foreign policy trends.

Mr Trong explicitly backed the TPP in his speech to the congress, and showed, with his historic visit to the White House last July, that he understands the need to balance ties between the old enemy in Washington and the party’s ideological comrades in Beijing.

It was Trong’s surprise emergence as a foreign policy player last year, cultivating ties with Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, that may have helped tip the balance with waverers in the party, who might have favoured Dung for his greater diplomatic experience.

They may also have concluded that Trong’s image as a mild mannered, backward looking but incorruptible ideologue serves the party well at a time when other power brokers are accused of wholesale corruption and lavish living.

Some foreign investors, however disappointed they may be at the loss of Dung, say they are at least reassured by the return of some stability to the Communist Party.

It remains unclear whether the new leadership will attempt to eradicate the remaining influence of the prime minister, who will step down later this year, and the patronage networks that he built up during his two terms in the job.

Sources close to the Central Committee say that he only narrowly lost out in the leadership vote and still has his supporters.

Analysts caution that Vietnam retains its traditional collective leadership and that no single faction can expect to call all the shots.

However, the bitterness of the struggle between Dung and Trong led to the airing of much of the party’s dirty linen in public and some suspect  the bitterness will linger.

Smears, allegations and denials were traded across internet forums by supporters of the rival camps, giving many Vietnamese their first glimpse of the machinations at the once secret heart of the country’s leadership.