News analysis

Conservatives still call the shots in Vietnam and Laos

Communist parties vote for continuity; key challenge is managing tensions with China

Vietnam and Laos, the only Communist regimes in South-east Asia, inducted new leadership this past week through party congresses. Changes in both cases saw conservatives prevail. The relatively secretive Lao People's Revolutionary Party which runs Laos - which is chairman of the 10-nation Asean this year - last Friday chose Mr Bounnhang Vorachit, 78, as its new leader. In Hanoi on the following Wednesday, 71-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong was reappointed leader of the Vietnam Communist Party.

Analysts say it is clear that continuity was preferable to bold change - and there is no rush to liberalise the political system.

In Vietnam, the larger of the two countries by far - Asean's sixth-largest economy and its third-biggest by population - internal factional struggles did not derail collective decision-making.

"It is not a winner-takes-all political system," Professor Carl Thayer, from the University ofNew South Wales in Australia, said in a telephone interview. "The Central tendency in the Vietnam system, of maintaining equilibrium, has not changed."

Dr Le Hong Hiep, a visiting fellow at the Vietnam studies programme at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said: "With the departure of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (Mr Trong's main rival but now due to retire), they have tried to end infighting and bring back a consensus."



    General secretary of Vietnam's Communist Party Central Committee

    Re-elected to a second term, Mr Trong was again granted an exemption to the party's age limit rule, which states that members seeking a new leadership term should not be over 65. The head of the party's old guard with a doctorate degree in politics, he was first elected general secretary in 2011. He previously served as chairman of Vietnam's National Assembly from 2006.


    General secretary of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party

    Mr Bounnhang kept a low profile as vice-president of Laos from 2006 before being appointed party chief. He served as prime minister from 2001 at a time when the government faced rising discontent over its rigid rule and curtailed rights.

    His premiership lasted five years but was criticised for a lack of vision. As finance minister between 1999 and 2001, he oversaw the country's economic recovery from the 1997 regional economic crisis.


Mr Trong told reporters: "My age is high, health is limited, knowledge is limited. I asked to step down, but because of the responsibility assigned by the party, I have to perform my duty."  He is expected to continue as general secretary for up to 21/2 years, and hand over to someone else by the midway mark of the five-year term.  

  This week, the party also inducted 12 new members into an expanded 19-member Politburo. The Politburo includes three women; the previous one had two. One of them, 61-year-old Nguyen Ti Kim Ngan, has been nominated for Speaker of the National Assembly.

The next step in the transition will be in May, with the formation of Vietnam's 14th National Assembly and People's Councils. The President - a powerful but somewhat ceremonial position - and Prime Minister will be chosen.  

The Politburo includes Mr Nguyen Van Binh, governor of the central bank who has been praised for maintaining a stable monetary policy, and US-educated Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.

Four members, though, are from security agencies. "They are quite strong and influential, and some have expressed concern that the security services will exert more control," said Dr Hiep.

 Some in the Politburo are seen as pro-America, and some, pro-China. Mr Trong has been seen as pro-China, but some analysts say that is an exaggeration. Last year, he visited the White House - the first party chief to do so - and Vietnam recently signed two free trade pacts, one with the European Union, and the other, the US-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership.

 Vietnam expects to welcomeUS President Barack Obama in May and Hanoi continues to warm to the US as Vietnam deals with an increasingly assertive China in the disputed South China Sea, known in Vietnam as the East Sea.

Managing tensions is a key challenge. "Anti-China sentiment is pervasive in Vietnam," Prof Thayer said. "But they need to keep it quiet, they don't want to confront China."

One former ambassador to Hanoi, who did not want to be named, told The Straits Times: "On foreign policy, irrespective of differences between themselves, Vietnamese leaders would follow a course of nationalist pragmatism."

In Laos, the political leadership has traditionally been under Vietnam's sphere of influence.

While China's economic influence in Laos is increasing, some of the more pro-China figures in the Politburo are no longer in the 11-member body, foreign diplomatic sources in Vientiane said. "This could be an indicator that if you are too close to China, you are out," said one diplomat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline 'Conservatives still call the shots in Vietnam and Laos'. Subscribe