MELBOURNE, Australia — The damp cold that has descended on Hanoi this winter was a fitting backdrop to Vietnam's 11th Party Congress, which concluded this week.
Hot-button issues came second to noisy rhetoric, as any hopes of a shakeup were largely dampened.
Given the current economic woes — inflation, weakening currency and a serious trade deficit — and dramas at the state-owned shipbuilder Vinashin as well as the contentious bauxite mine project in the Central Highlands — some wondered whether heated debate would ensue. It did not.
Officials opened the congress by apologizing for corruption and inefficiency. But aside from these notably open gestures (which were not unprecedented) there were overall few surprises at the eight day-long communist confab, held every five years to chart the nation's course and decide key government positions.
The new leadership trifecta, which was formally announced Wednesday, went largely as expected.
Despite recent criticism over his economic policies and the near collapse of Vinashin, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung retained his position at the helm. Though, like all the appointments, his position will have to be ratified in May by the National Assembly.
Gen. Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and President Nguyen Trong Sang replaced former Secretary Nong Duc Manh and President Nguyen Minh Triet, respectively. Both Manh and Triet were over the age limit of 65, and retired.
Going forward, Sang, now in the largely ceremonial position of president, is expected to pander to world leaders before strong-arming his own men. Sang has also been a longtime rival of Prime Minister Dung, and there is likely to be more friction between the two.
Trong, 66 (technically over the age limit) and former head of the National Assembly, has been described as “grandfatherly.” There is some concern over whether Trong will be able to provide forceful leadership.
The priority after elections will be management of the economy. Both Dung and Sang are market-oriented, and Trong publicly stated that tackling economic problems would be the first order of business. Inflation will be addressed, though a concrete plan of attack has yet to be announced.
The new appointments will be ratified in May when the National Assembly is re-elected. The assembly is the main legislative body in Vietnam and over 90 percent of its members are also Party members.
Dung will be forced to reckon with an increasingly assertive Central Committee, according to Vietnam-expert Carl Thayer, a professor based in Australia.
“The point to be made is that the Central Committee is likely to reflect current concerns [over] economic issues. Prime Minister Dung has his work cut out over the next several months before the Central Committee convenes," Thayer wrote.
The congress confirmed the government's main agenda, said Martin Gainsborough of Bristol University, who recently wrote a book on Vietnam’s economy.
“The government’s main goals can be encapsulated as securing growth with stability and maintaining social and political stability. ... Congresses only set out the broad parameters of policy direction. The devil’s in the details,” Gainsborough told GlobalPost.
The congress opened with officials openly admitting that corruption, inefficiency and inept economic management are holding the nation back.
At the opening ceremony, then-Gen. Secretary Manh referred to economic woes and to the families of government officials who have abused power.
“Quality, efficiency and competitiveness remain low," he said. "Bureaucracy, corruption, wastefulness, social vices and moral and lifestyle degradation have not been prevented.”
Manh apologized as he left the stage: “I myself, to some extent, haven’t met the expectations of the people and the Communist members. ... I also take my responsibility."
Though Sang and Dung have long been competitors, both are market-oriented and represent a shift away from the older guard.
Change is often incremental, and most of the new blood coming in is still over 50 years old, but the new leadership reflects a move toward those who are better educated and more worldly — unlike the old war heroes who once ran the nation.
Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, for example, who defeated the French in 1954, wrote three public letters lambasting plans for a bauxite mine in the Central Highlands. Though this proved a major rallying point for opponents of the mine, it also highlighted the divide between the old guard and the new generation interested in modernization and industrialization. Despite protestations, the mining will go ahead.
That said, over 10 percent of new electees to the Central Committee — the most powerful body in the government with close to 200 members — were from the army. Some have chalked this up to Sino-Vietnamese relations. Though Hanoi and Beijing aver friendship, Vietnam often views its larger neighbor with suspicion and territorial disputes in the South China Sea are an ongoing issue.
Maintaining the one-party status quo while pushing for more debate within the party — what could be called 'internal democracy' — was the theme of this congress. Discussion over key leadership positions and the direction the party should take in the coming months took precedence over outside challenges.
Vietnam's ongoing integration into the wider world is believed by many to be a possible catalyst for dissent from authoritarian rule, and any challenge to one-party rule is traditionally squashed.
International media chronicled repressive actions taken by the government over past year in the run-up to the congress. Bloggers and activists were locked up, visa restrictions on foreigners and the easy-to-circumvent Facebook block was stepped up around New Year’s.
Helen Clark lives in Hanoi and reports on Vietnam for GlobalPost.