HANOI, Vietnam – Vietnam's Communist Party chief easily won a seat in a key committee Tuesday, the first step toward retaining his position as the head of the collective leadership of the country.
General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong secured more than 80 percent of votes from delegates at a party congress to be elected to the Central Committee, one of the two pillars of the ruling establishment, several delegates said.
He is now expected to be elected to the new Politburo, which is considered a formality in the orchestrated transition of power that happens once every five years. The Communist Party is entitled by the Constitution to govern and Vietnam's 93 million people have no direct role in the election of the party leaders.
Trong's election was not without hiccups. He faced a brief challenge from Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, his No.2 who had ambitions for the top post. But Dung effectively withdrew from the contest, clearing the way for Trong.
Dung is seen as a pro-business leader who investors believe would have continued with economic reforms he set in motion 10 years ago. He is also seen as being capable of standing his ground in case of a confrontation with China, which has been aggressively making territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Trong, on the other hand, is seen as pro-China and an economic conservative. Analysts say Trong's election might slow down the pace of reforms, but not stall them. And he's also unlikely to be subservient to China as some fear.
Trong was among 180 who were elected to the Central Committee, one of the two pillars of the ruling establishment. Among the 180 were Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who is poised to be the next prime minister, and Public Security Minister Tran Dai Quang, who will likely secure the presidency.
On Wednesday, Central Committee members will elect the all-powerful Politburo, which handles the day-to-day governance of Vietnam, whose membership is expected to increase to 18 from the current 16.
Of the Politburo members, one will be chosen general secretary. Three others will be chosen, in respective order of seniority, the prime minister, the president and the chairman of the National Assembly.
Trong had been trying unsuccessfully for years to sideline Dung, and while contests for the top post are not unheard of, they are usually settled well ahead of the party congress.
Regardless of who is in power, the government's policies will not change radically, analysts say.
"Ideologically, there isn't a yawning gap between Trong and Dung, although most people believe that the pace of economic reform might slow a bit if Trong remains at the helm and Dung is ousted," said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asian expert based in Washington, DC.
Dung, who rose through the ranks of the party and held senior positions, is a two-term prime minister. His economic reforms have helped Vietnam attract a flood of foreign investment and helped triple the per capita GDP to $2,100 over the past 10 years.
Trong's camp accuses Dung of economic mismanagement, including the spectacular collapse of state-owned shipping company Vinashin; failing to control massive public debt; allowing corruption; and not dealing adequately with the non-preforming loans of state-owned banks.
Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist nations in the world, with a party membership of 4.5 million out of its 93 million people. But like its ideological ally China, the government believes in a quasi-free market economy alongside strictly controlled politics and society.
Tran Van Minh contributed to this report.