HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnam’s Communist elite were poised Tuesday to select the next party boss after being sequestered in secretive meetings for nearly a week to decide who will lead a country grappling with the growing pains of capitalism.
Nguyen Phu Trong, 66, current chairman of the lawmaking National Assembly, was expected to be named the powerful general secretary of the Communist Party to replace retiring Nong Duc Manh, 70.
That position, along with the three other top slots, were to be determined during the last two days of the Party Congress, which ends Wednesday. But regardless of who is selected during the event — filled with pomp and circumstance along with hammer-and-sickle propaganda — the carefully choreographed direction of the country will not deviate from the path already mapped out by the ruling collective.
"This is not a system that goes for the jugular, and you throw one side out and keep the other in," said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. "It’s a battle for the positions, and you divide up the spoils."
Nearly 1,400 delegates, greeting each other as "comrade," met Monday to vote for the new 200-member Central Committee, which was to select the new party chief and all-powerful Politburo on Tuesday.
Trong is a Soviet-trained former editor of Vietnam’s Journal of Communism and has been the party’s chief Marxist theorist. Hailing from the northern capital, Hanoi — the position of party chief has typically gone to a northerner — he is considered a moderate.
Truong Tan Sang, 61, the party’s No. 2, is expected to be chosen as president Wednesday after reportedly being elbowed from the party boss position. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, 61, is expected to retain his job.
The president’s post is mostly ceremonial, while the prime minister is responsible for running the country’s day-to-day affairs. The head of the National Assembly also will be picked, but the positions will not officially be announced until they are confirmed by parliament later this year.
In a classified cable sent by Michael Michalak, outgoing U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, and obtained by the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks, Sang and Dung were described as "known commodities: pragmatic, market-oriented and in favor of steady, incremental advances in Vietnam’s relationship with the United States." The cable was posted last week by the British newspaper The Guardian.
Dung, a former Viet Cong guerrilla during the Vietnam War, has shown a strong desire to strengthen relations with the U.S., from trade and investment to military relations and nuclear power. Thayer said despite a new foreign minister being picked, Dung would likely continue working closely with Washington, especially as neighboring China takes a stronger stance over disputed territories in the South China Sea claimed by a number of countries, including Vietnam.
The new leadership will be faced with wide-ranging economic woes, including huge trade and current account deficits, weak currencies and double-digit inflation that’s squeezing the country’s poor by driving up food prices. Vietnam also is wrangling with a financial scandal at a state-owned shipbuilding company that has blighted its global image.
Vietnam has rapidly expanded since the one-party government opted to pull the country out of isolation and poverty in the mid-1980s by moving away from failed collective farming and embracing a market economy.
The transition to capitalism has lifted many out of poverty, but the growing gap between rich and poor is visible everywhere, with the high-rolling nouveau riche splurging on imported beef in $35 bowls of the country’s staple noodle soup, pho. The broth can be bought out of steaming caldrons on street corners for about $1.
At the meeting’s opening broadcast on national television Jan. 12, the current leaders admitted to a spate of failures, ranging from rampant corruption to abuse of power within the party ranks.
They also said Vietnam has averaged economic growth of 7.2 percent a year over the past decade — one of the fastest rates in Asia. However, despite setting a target of 7 to 8 percent annual growth over the next 10 years, they warned it might be difficult to sustain that momentum.