Top Viet leader re-elected as party chief

Mr Nguyen Phu Trong (right) with Politburo member Tran Dai Quang (left) at the end of the first meeting of the new Vietnam Communist Party's central committee held in Hanoi yesterday.
Mr Nguyen Phu Trong (right) with Politburo member Tran Dai Quang (left) at the end of the first meeting of the new Vietnam Communist Party's central committee held in Hanoi yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HANOI • Vietnam's top communist leader Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected yesterday in a victory for the party's old guard which some fear could slow crucial economic reforms in the fast-growing country.

Factional fighting overshadowed a week of closed-door talks at the five-yearly Communist Party Congress. But Mr Trong, 72, retained his position while his rival - reformist Nguyen Tan Dung - was pushed from power.

Mr Dung remains as Prime Minister but will step down later this year when the National Assembly convenes to appoint a replacement.

This is expected to be Mr Nguyen Xuan Phuc, currently a deputy prime minister, state media said.

"Delegates to the first meeting of the party's central committee congratulated Comrade Nguyen Phu Trong who was elected general secretary," the official Vietnam News Agency reported.

Mr Trong, seen as more of a conservative apparatchik and closer to China than Mr Dung, has been party chief since 2011 and will stay on following a compromise deal which analysts say is a move back towards more consensus-based decision-making.

Mr Dung, 66, a two-term Prime Minister and political heavyweight, is credited with pushing a pro-business agenda and talking tough to China over a festering maritime dispute. He had been tipped to ascend to the party leader position but in the end he lost out in internal elections. He was not selected for the 180-member central committee, which in effect ends his official political career.

The charismatic Mr Dung was a rare "political celebrity" whose leadership style alienated other cadres, said Mr Jonathan London, a Vietnam expert at City University of Hong Kong.

Although both his reformist credentials and achievements in office were debatable, he was unquestionably "someone who had a vision", said Dr London, adding that his exit marked a return to a more moderated style of governance.

"The (Communist) Party has been around for 85 years and always been steered by committee - in this context, the 'go slow' approach makes sense," he added.

Others say that Mr Trong's ascent is unlikely to mark a dramatic change of course on key issues such as a dispute with Beijing over parts of the South China Sea and participation in a series of trade deals, including the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The entire politburo - which was also elected yesterday with 19 members - is committed to economic reforms and the change in leadership is more "a question of style", economist Bui Kien Thanh said.

Mr Tony Foster, a lawyer with Freshfields, said Mr Dung's successor is expected to continue key economic reforms so most foreign investors are not concerned.

"The stability in the system is extraordinary, and from a foreign investors' point of view a big positive," he added.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'Top Viet leader re-elected as party chief'. Print Edition | Subscribe