HANOI (REUTERS) - In Vietnam, one of the last five remaining communist-ruled countries in the world, next Monday (Jan 25) brings the launch of a key party meeting that will anoint the country's next leadership quartet and set policy direction for the next five years.
The 13th National Congress in Hanoi will last until Feb 2, with nearly 1,600 party delegates from across Vietnam descending on the capital for the gathering and votes to seal the new leadership's elevation.
Stringent measures to keep the coronavirus pandemic at bay will be in place. But thanks to the imposition of strict quarantines and targeted testing and tracing, Vietnam has recorded just 35 deaths from Covid-19 - putting its economy on track to recover faster than most.
The country's incoming leadership team will be looking to leverage that economic advantage, as well as deal with challenges from the United States and China, Vietnam's two largest trading partners, and increasing international attention to human rights concerns.
What will be discussed at the congress?
Besides policy, by far the most important item on the Party's agenda is "personnel issues" - a euphemism for electing a new Central Committee and Politburo.
The congress delegates will first elect a 200-strong Central Committee. The latter will then vote in 14-19 Politburo members, who will in turn nominate Vietnam's official four "pillars" of leadership: the Party chief, the state president, the prime minister, and the National Assembly chair. The Central Committee then votes to approve the leadership quartet.
The new Politburo will go on to nominate a new Cabinet, which Vietnam's National Assembly will approve in the following months.
The voting process is secretive and opaque. Surprises can happen - during the last congress in 2016, then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was ousted from the leadership group altogether.
Who's in the running?
The main candidates are widely known in Hanoi's political circles, but were officially declared top secret in December to discourage potentially critical debate.
Incumbent 76-year-old party chief Nguyen Phu Trong has become one of the most powerful men in Vietnam for decades after he emerged on top at the 2016 congress during a power struggle between ideologues like himself and a bloc of business-friendly cadres, led by former PM Dung.
While events at the last congress and a subsequent crackdown on corruption have deepened factional fault lines across party ranks, anything but continuity in Vietnam's economic and political policymaking after the congress would surprise country watchers.
In the months running up to the meeting, there has been intense competition for a limited number of top posts. Mr Trong, General Secretary of the Party since 2011, also holds the title of state president, a role to which he was appointed after the incumbent died in 2018.
His "blazing furnace" crackdown on corruption, as it has been officially dubbed, has seen dozens of high-ranking officials, including one Politburo member, sentenced to lengthy jail terms. Many of those targeted by the crackdown were allies of Mr Dung, prompting critics to dismiss the crackdown as politically motivated.
If - as observers expect - Mr Trong continues as party chief, he will become the longest-serving general secretary since Le Duan, the leader who took control and ruled with an iron fist after the death of Vietnam's founding revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh.
What about others?
Current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who successfully steered Vietnam through the pandemic, a US-China trade war and towards a handful of key trade deals, will be looking to retain his position or rise up party ranks, analysts and sources say.
If the positions of party chief and president - currently both held by Mr Trong - are decoupled, Mr Phuc is viewed by some to be in the running for the presidential position and to be an eventual candidate to become the party's general secretary.
Mr Phuc's ascent would leave the economically focused prime minister role open. Mr Pham Minh Chinh, an apparatchik who heads the party's organisation committee, has emerged as one candidate to replace him, although Mr Chinh does not appear to have such broad economic experience as those who previously held the role.
Another candidate with broader economic qualifications who could also be in the running to become prime minister would be Mr Vuong Dinh Hue, a former deputy prime minister who is currently Secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee.
Still, observers believe him to be more likely to take the least important of the four top jobs - the National Assembly chair - although that position has in the past been used as a springboard to the general secretary role. Mr Trong himself held the position before becoming party chief.
How do people qualify for each role?
In theory, ascent to the highest levels of Vietnamese politics is governed by rules and limits on age and geographical origin. There has never been a general secretary who was not from the northern half of Vietnam, for example, and Politburo members over the age of 65 should retire, according to party regulations.
In reality, the highly secretive process revolves around building a consensus and vying for control of the party's powerful, decision-making Politburo. That means exceptions to rules are often granted - especially if a consensus on the top candidates cannot be reached.
As it stands, the current list of top candidates does not contain anyone from the southern half of Vietnam, an issue which could foster tensions within the party and prompt calls from the southern bloc for more top-level representation.
What about policy issues?
This Congress will include an assessment of Vietnam's achievements 35 years after the introduction of "Doi Moi", the government-led 1986 movement which brought much-needed economic and political reforms and laid the groundwork for the country's rapid development.
It will also conduct a review of how well the outgoing leadership team performed, and set new domestic and international policies and guidelines for the next five to 10 years.
Also on the agenda: long-term plans to achieve Vietnam's stated ambition to become a high-income country by 2045.