Nguyen Phu Trong calls the shots

More than first among equals, Nguyen Phu Trong (centre) calls the shots. Photo courtesy AFP.

Barely two years ago, Vietnam’s Communist party boss, Nguyen Phu Trong, was being written off as an ideological stick-in-the mud on the brink of retirement.

In the intervening months, he has reinvented himself as the central force in Vietnamese politics; a man on a mission to reassert the power of the Communist party and to crush potential opposition.

Mr Trong confounded his rivals by taking personal charge of an anti-corruption campaign that has reached into the highest levels of the leadership.

His resurgence, dating from his reappointment as general-secretary at the 12th Party Congress in January last year, has also been marked by a ruthless crackdown on the nascent civil society movement.

“Bad and hostile”

Mr Trong was in the limelight again this week, haranguing young people for their lack of ideological rectitude, in a speech to the party’s youth league in Ho Chi Minh City.

“They have been manipulated by hostile forces to do things that run counter to the party and the country’s direction,” he said, in an apparent reference to links between civil society groups and their international supporters.

He called for more efforts to protect young people from “bad and hostile” forces on the internet.

Mr Trong has a bold ambition – to revitalise the Communist party and its ideology, consolidating its central role against the encroachments of ambitious state technocrats with a penchant for reform and lavish living.

He has used the anti-corruption campaign, including sweeps against big state enterprises, banks and prominent politicians, to try to bolster the legitimacy of a party mired in sleaze.

Flash and ambitious

In the opaque world of Vietnamese politics, the dynamics within the party leadership will always remain murky.

Some analysts reject the view that the struggles are ideologically driven, with hardliners around Trong turning the tables on economic reformers loyal to the former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung.

The picture is muddied by the swirling cross-currents of competing patronage networks and personal rivalries.

But the main targets of the anti-graft campaign, notably the former politburo member, Dinh La Thang, arrested last week, are noted for their close links to the former prime minister.

Mr Thang’s main transgression, in the eyes of Mr Trong and his allies, may have been that he was too flash and too ambitious.

As party boss in Ho Chi Minh City, he had taken on some of the airs of a Western politician, playing to the camera, personalising promises and local initiatives: a style alien to the caution and secrecy of Vietnam’s collective leadership.

Like the former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, Thang was also associated with massive losses at state owned enterprises, notably PetroVietnam, and that proved to be his Achilles heel.

Rising force

Mr Trong’s reappointment at the 12th Congress was initially thought to be temporary. The word was put out that he would serve half a term and then be replaced by a younger man.

Few now expect to see a new leader before the 13th congress in 2021.

The most likely successor had been seen as another old school ideologue and party propagandist, Dinh The Huynh.

He was sent on visits to Beijing and Washington in an effort to burnish his credentials as a statesmen.

However, Mr Huynh was replaced as a member of the politburo in the summer, with only the blandest explanation that he was suffering from “health problems”.

His replacement, Tran Quoc Vuong, is now seen as a contender, not least because of his central role in the anti-corruption campaign.

The state president and former internal security chief, Tran Dai Quang, is also a force to be reckoned with.

In a country where political reporting is off limits, and bloggers are jailed with growing frequency, the power struggles in the Communist party leadership remain as opaque as ever.

The lesson of recent times, however, is that Nguyen Phu Trong, ideological dinosaur that he may have once appeared, should not be underestimated.