Trong goes for broke as party falls in line

Trong has already increased his profile with a series of foreign visits. He will now consolidate his position as Vietnamese leader at home an abroad.

The nomination of the Communist party leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, to serve concurrently as state president drives a coach and horses through Vietnam’s long nurtured system of collective leadership.

Not since the authoritarian rule of Le Duan at the height of the American war will one man have wielded such a degree of personal power in Vietnam.

After trial balloons were floated through leaks to reporters, the Central Committee of the Communist party formally nominated Trong as sole candidate for the post.

His “election” by the rubber stamp National Assembly in the coming weeks is all but assured following the untimely death through illness last month of the incumbent, Tran Dai Quang.

Some analysts say the move will undermine the system of checks and balances inherent in the current collective leadership, even though the source of real power has always been rooted in the politburo.

Much will depend on Trong’s motives for wanting to consolidate his power, and whether the reunification will become permanent after he leaves office.

The post of president is often seen as largely symbolic, given that all major decisions must first be cleared with the Communist party’s ruling body.

However, the presidency does wield wide ranging powers of patronage over state appointments and in the military, which could be exploited by Trong, given his domination of the politburo, to pack top positions with his supporters and acolytes.

Nguyen Phu Trong is an unlikely figure to emerge as a Vietnamese strongman with, on the face of it, a similar status in party and government structures to Xi Jinping in China.

He was long perceived by the public as a rather academic figure, a self effacing ideologue concerning himself with the nuances of Marxist-Leninist thought. His preoccupations looked quaintly regressive at a time when Vietnam was emerging as swashbuckling market economy under the brash leadership of the former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung.

Trong made his comeback in 2016, securing a second term as party general-secretary and sweeping aside Dung and his coterie of ambitious officials and businessmen.

The overriding theme of Trong’s resurgence has been rooting out corruption, reviving the supposed Marxist virtues of discipline and austerity, and re-establishing the central role of the Communist party in the governance of the country.

Some expect Trong to use his new powers to redouble efforts to clean up the party and to consolidate the power of a conservative clique around him.

That is bad news for Vietnam’s beleaguered community of civil society activists and independent bloggers.

Trong has presided over a fierce crackdown that has seen dozens of government critics harassed, beaten and sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment.

Public reaction to the appointment, however, is likely to be muted.

The mild-mannered Trong with his grandfatherly demeanour belies all stereotypes of the power hungry dictator out for self aggrandisement and treasure.

He has shown no tendency, so far, to build a cult of personality along the lines of a Kim Jong-un, or even a Xi Jinping or Putin.

Instead, he gives the impression of a true believer – someone who thinks corruption is undermining not only the Communist party but the moral fibre of the nation. It’s a position that strikes a chord with many Vietnamese people.

The danger comes in the accumulation of power by one man in a notoriously secretive and vindictively authoritarian system that allows no pretence of democratic choice, no accountability, and no right of recall if some self-proclaimed man of destiny seizes control and chooses to lead the country to ruin.