HANOI, Vietnam – A top policy-making body of Vietnam's Communist Party was meeting Wednesday for the last stage of a power transition to elect the party chief and other members of the country's collective leadership for the next five years.
The election, however, holds no surprises: General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, 71 (pronounced Noo-yen Foo Chong), a conservative ideologue with pro-China leanings, is certain to be re-elected after he quashed a challenge from his No. 2.
The renewal of the leadership means little change for Vietnam. Trong is expected to continue to push economic reforms, which his vanquished rival had led for the last 10 years, and despite having a reputation for being pro-China he is not likely to be totally subservient to Beijing as that would risk massive anger from ordinary Vietnamese who harbor a deep dislike and historical suspicion of China.
"Many people were afraid that a conservative trend would prevail if Mr. Trong is re-elected. But ... whoever they may be, and however conservative they may be, when they are at the helm they are under pressure to carry out reforms," Le Hong Hiep, a visiting Vietnamese fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore, told The Associated Press.
"However, we have to wait to see whether the reforms they carry out will be successful or not, or how far they can go," he said.
Trong secured more than 80 percent of the votes from delegates at a party congress on Tuesday to win election to the Central Committee, one of the two pillars of the ruling establishment. The 180-member Central Committee was now meeting behind closed doors to elect a Politburo, the equivalent of a ruling council made up of the cream of the party leaders headed by the general secretary.
Trong's re-election is now a mere formality in the orchestrated transition of power, which takes place 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 electing the leaders of the 4.5 million-member party.
Last week, Trong faced a brief challenge from Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, his No. 2. But in behind-the scenes maneuvering, Dung (pronounced Zoong) was persuaded to withdraw from the contest.
Dung was seen as a pro-business leader who investors believe would have continued with economic reforms he set in motion 10 years ago that helped Vietnam attract a flood of foreign investment and helped triple the per capita GDP to $2,100. He was also seen as standing up to China, which is making aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea and building islands, much to the chagrin of Southeast Asia nations who have conflicting claims in the waters.
China sent an oil rig into Vietnamese waters in 2014, triggering a massive backlash among Vietnamese, including attacks on Chinese businesses. Dung was vocal in criticizing China then, while Trong was muted.
Despite Trong's reputation for being pro-China and an economic conservative in an anti-thesis of Dung, the reality is not so black-and-white. Observers agree that the economic reforms Dung started have the blessings of the collective leadership, including Trong.
A clear example of that was when a plenum of the outgoing Central Committee overwhelmingly endorsed Vietnam joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S. led free-trade initiative.
As for China, Trong will not risk the ire of the public by being soft on if Beijing's aggression impinges on Vietnam territorial integrity.
On Tuesday, the other leaders elected to the Central Committee besides Trong were Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who is poised to become the next prime minister, and Public Security Minister Tran Dai Quang, who will likely become the president.
Tran Van Minh contributed to this report.