Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Việt Nam’s Party Congress

Published January 4, 2016 in Episode 37

Drums and trumpets sound off as the 11th Party Congress began in 2011. A similar fanfare can be expected in less than three weeks to announce the start of the 12th Party Congress. But not all remains the same. Here are five things you probably didn’t know about the 2016 National Party Congress.

1. what’s a party congress?

Every five years, party delegates convene in Hà Nội to approve the Communist Party’s policy direction and select the new leadership.

Information about this upcoming congress has been especially limited this time around. It was only a few days before Christmas when the Central Committee, the body responsible for making administrative decisions for the party, announced the official dates of the 2016 National Party Congress.

“The 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of Việt Nam will take place from January the 20 to the 28,” state-media network VTV reported on December 23, only a month before this all-important conference takes place.

This leaves less than four weeks for party members to prepare for a meeting that sets out the country’s path for the next five years.

2. Who’s gonna lead the party, ergo the country, next?

1,510 delegates in attendance will select the party’s Central Committee and its top leadership positions, including the politburo and the general secretary.

Speculation is running high on who will assume the position of general secretary. It’s the Communist Party of Việt Nam’s top post. And when the constitution guarantees the party’s sole supremacy over the state and in government, the party chief will also be the most powerful man of Việt Nam.

Radio Free Asia's Vietnamese service summarized the current speculation in its December 22 broadcast:

“Political observers say Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng is lobbying hard to take the general secretary seat in this upcoming party congress. On the other hand, pro-China Nguyễn Phú Trọng has not publicly mentioned whether he will keep his position as general secretary for another term. President Trương Tấn Sang is also a candidate for the position of general secretary, but public opinion do not find this to be as likely.”

All three of these potential candidates, however, are over the retirement age of 65. A waiver to the age stipulation is possible, but that leaves little opportunity for younger leaders to step to the forefront.  

3. Does it really matter who takes which position?

The current leaders may seem to be playing musical chairs and merely shifting leadership positions. But in a country where there is only one ruling party, who becomes general secretary will matter. Party watchers say it’ll determine whether Việt Nam will pivot to the U.S. or to China.

The top two contenders represent the intense jockeying for power between conservative, pro-China elements led by secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng, and western-leaning reformists led by the PM, Nguyễn Tấn Dũng.

The odds are in favor of the PM and this speaks to Dũng’s skill to maneuver and consolidate power.

But, the problems of corruption to gain money and power will also likely continue as Nguyễn Tấn Dũng props up his supporters.

Journalist Trương Huy San, who authored the book Bên Thắng Cuộc, or The Winning Side, under his pen name Huy Đức, wrote in a Facebook post, “If you count the time Nguyễn Tấn Dũng has stood among the top five most powerful people in the country (since becoming a politburo member in 1996), he has been in a position of power for almost 20 years. Looking back over these 20 years, especially during his tenure as prime minister for the past ten years, among the families in Việt Nam, perhaps his family is the only one that has been most successful.”

In other words, another five years of Nguyễn Tấn Dũng at the helm of power will likely mean those closest to him will benefit as opposed to the Vietnamese people.

4. What’s with all the secrecy?

Tension between the conservatives and the reformists reveal a less united party and weakened leaders.

It used to be that power dynamics could still shift at the party congress. But a new rule has been implemented to avoid late surprises, says Lý Thái Hùng, general secretary of pro-democracy party Việt Tân. (Editor's note: Loa is a project of Việt Tân)

“Party members are unable to run or be nominated into the central committee at the party congress unless they were initially nominated by the outgoing politburo,” he explains. “This is a new rule outlined in Directive 244 from 2014 to prevent a particular faction from influencing delegates to introduce their own candidates at the last minute at the party congress. This has happened before, especially at the 11th Party Congress when Nguyễn Tấn Dũng’s faction unexpectedly promoted their own candidates to the Central Committee at the 25th hour.”

Deciding the next leadership has not been as smooth as in the past, and explains why preparations for this party congress have been particularly quiet. The secrecy masks the still ongoing tug of war between the factions that’s playing out behind closed doors.

5. Do the Vietnamese people get any say in any of this?

Although the party announced that it takes public opinion on drafts of policy reports to be presented at the 12th Congress, the Vietnamese people actually have little say in the national party congress.

Tôn Lê, a medical doctor in Sài Gòn, echoes sentiments of Vietnamese citizens on their role in the party congress:

“The people check in a little bit on the party congress, but they have no influence at all, none whatsoever.”

“It seems like within the party they have already voted,” he observes and adds, “In general, the ballot has been predetermined and it’s not an election in the real sense. The delegates vote and they immediately report the winners. The Vietnamese people don’t know why those people won at all.”

While the Vietnamese people can once again only look on from the outside as the Communist Party decides the country’s next leadership, within the party we could see a major shakeup at the end of this month.