Vietnam's ruling Communist Party re-elects conservative leader Nguyen Phu Trong

Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected  following an eight-day party congress on Jan 27, 2016.
Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected following an eight-day party congress on Jan 27, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

HANOI (AFP) - Vietnam's top communist leader Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected on Wednesday (Jan 27) 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 as his rival, reformist Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, was pushed from power.

Mr Dung remains 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, 72, seen as more a conservative apparatchik and closer to China, 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 Dung was a rare "political celebrity" amid the communist country's faceless collective leadership, Mr Jonathan London, a Vietnam expert at City University of Hong Kong, told AFP, adding that this style alienated other cadres.

Although both his reformist credentials and achievements in office were debatable, he was unquestionably "someone who had a vision", said Mr London, adding 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.

Mr Trong's ascent - which owes more to Mr Dung's divisiveness as to his own popularity - 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 - the 19 members of which were elected on Wednesday - is committed to economic reforms and the change in leadership is more "a question of style", Vietnamese economist Bui Kien Thanh told AFP.