BANGKOK – In a single-party communist state one would expect the process of picking the country's new leaders to be a smooth-sailing affair with no dramas.
Not so this time. Despite the veil of secrecy that the party pulls around its inner workings, it is clear that the Communist Party's eight-day Congress set to open Thursday was the kind of political cliffhanger that would do a democracy proud, as a battle for power hinged on a last-minute procedural question.
After weeklong deliberations, the congress of 1,510 delegates will select a new set of leaders to rule Vietnam for the next five years: the president, the prime minister, the chairman of the National Assembly, and most importantly, the party's general secretary, the de-facto national leader. He is first among equals in the Politburo that runs the country as well as in the party.
A rare and intriguing contest arose between the 71-year-old incumbent Nguyen Phu Trong, a conservative party stalwart, and Nguyen Tan Dung, 66, a two-term prime minister with greater ambitions who projected himself as a pro-business, economic reformist.
On Wednesday, just a day before the Congress was to open, Trong (pronounced "Chong") appeared to have secured his job, according to news leaked from party insiders, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to release such information. In keeping with the close nature of the proceedings, no confirmation of the news was immediately available.
At the last preparatory meeting, it was agreed to sustain a controversial rule enacted in 2014 barring all but officially nominated candidates from consideration, with no new nominations allowed from the Congress floor. Trong was endorsed as the general secretary candidate earlier this month.
Although the names on the official list were not publicly announced, word was leaked that on the slate with Trong would be two of Dung's (pronounced "Dzoong") allies for the posts of prime minister and president. The selection would be the sort of balancing act that is the usual outcome of the conclaves.
Vietnam's next leader will play a key role in deciding the pace of Vietnam's economic reforms, which has brought a flood of foreign investment, a fledgling stock market and helped triple per capita GDP to $2,100 over the past 10 years.
He will also shape Vietnam's relationship with China, its biggest trading partner, ideological ally and regional rival. Beijing has been expanding its territorial assertions in the South China Sea, but Vietnam has pushed back against those claims.
And experts believe that regardless of who took the top spot, Vietnam's ratification of the U.S. Trans-Pacific Partnership trade initiative and pace of improving ties with the U.S. will continue.
Every five years, delegates from around the country attend the congress to review and set national and party policies, and elect a new Central Committee. On one of the last days of the congress, the new Central Committee meets to elect a new Politburo from among its ranks and selects one of them as party general secretary.
The country's three other top leaders — prime minister, president and National Assembly chairman — are nominated, but their actual selection is done by the National Assembly, which itself is elected about six months after the Congress.
All this is done behind closed doors. No media are allowed to cover the proceedings, and in any case Vietnamese media are controlled by the government.
It had not been a sure thing for Trong. Up until the past few weeks, Dung had been the odds-on favorite to take the top party post, even though Trong has several times in the past few years tried to undercut the popular Dung's growing political strength.
Dung took on the pro-Trong Politburo several times, coming out on top. In 2012, the Central Committee rejected a Politburo vote that would have cast blame on him for mismanaging the economy. Another effort to diminish his power backfired when a vote of confidence was held by the Central Committee in early 2015 on the top 20 party leaders, and he led the pack with the top number of supporters.
He also has been the target of murkier attacks, mostly through blog postings accusing him of nepotism and trying to tie him to corruption.
"Mr. Trong is an ideologue, who has a PhD in 'party building.' As the party general secretary, his most important task is to maintain party unity and ultimately the party's hold on power," said Le Hong Hiep, a visiting fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Dung, however, rose mainly through bureaucratic ranks, holding various positions from provincial governor, to governor of the State Bank, deputy minister of Public Security, deputy prime minister, and then prime minister. He also drew support from the business sector.
Dung "is more result- and action-oriented, and less beholden to ideological dogmatism," Hiep said.
Trong and his followers were worried that if Dung took over the party, he will further expand his patronage network, which in turn will likely lead to more corruption.
"From the perspective of Mr. Trong's camp, the rise of Mr. Dung may therefore pose an existential threat to the Party's survival in the long run," he said.
Still, Vietnam has collective leadership, and that means major decisions are made by the all-powerful Politburo that runs day-to-day affairs of the party and the country.
Dung was more outspoken in his criticism of China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asian expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"Trong has been less strident in his criticisms of Chinese behavior, but no one expects him to cozy up to Beijing in the face of tensions in the South China Sea," he said.
And despite their differing styles, Hiebert said both men recognize that the party's survival "depends on continuing economic reform and global economic diversification."
Minh V. Tran in Hanoi, Vietnam contributed to this report.