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Vietnam's political elite elect new communist leaders

 Vietnam's political elite is gathering to elect the country's leadership for the next five years amid a widely successful battle against Covid-19 and a booming economy.

In most other countries, we would see something like a general election.

But Vietnam has a communist government and leadership is done differently.

Think of the closely choreographed political theater you see at party congresses in China or North Korea, and you get an idea.

Vietnam's political elite elect new communist leaders

Vietnam looks a lot like that, albeit a bit more discreet.

Why is Vietnam important?

The country is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia and a linchpin of stability in the region. Like China, it is essentially a booming capitalist power under a communist cloak.

The government has successfully established ties with China and the United States, placing the country in a very good strategic position.

Economically, Vietnam has good relations with both superpowers, and the current trade dispute between Beijing and Washington has put it in an even better position.

Many multinationals now operate in Vietnam, including global tech giants like Apple and Samsung.

It is also the only country in Southeast Asia that managed to minimize the economic damage of Covid-19 and achieved moderate growth over the past year.

Militarily, the country also delicately walks the line between China and the United States. It has fought wars against both, but in recent years it has been particularly at odds with Beijing over conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

How is Vietnam governed?

Unlike China or North Korea, the country does not have a single strongman at the helm. There are four main jobs that collectively run the show: the General Secretary of the Communist Party, the Prime Minister, the President, and the Speaker of the National Assembly.

The vote for those four jobs moves upward along a pyramid. Every five years, about 1,600 delegates vote for about 200 members on the Central Committee. That committee then elects a politburo of about 20. Of these, the top four positions are nominated.

While this reads like a bottom-up democratic process, there are usually extensive political maneuvers beforehand and the selections are predetermined.

Suppression of dissent

Just as political change is strictly controlled and managed, anything that is considered criticism of the authorities.

That is nothing new in Vietnam; after all, it is a one-party state without true freedom of the press.

However, in recent months the repression of dissent has been renewed. Amnesty International and the Reuters news agency said there had been a record number of political prisoners and longer jail terms for activists.

Earlier this month, three independent journalists were convicted of spreading anti-state propaganda and received 11 and 15 years in prison. This heightened control of dissent may be based in part on a special military cyber unit, called Task Force 47, which since 2018 has been targeting criticism online.

"Most of the detainees are writers and activists who use social media, particularly Facebook, as a platform," explains Nguyen Khac Giang, Vietnam researcher at Victoria University of Wellington.

"The situation will become more difficult for critics, as the government seems determined to end any sign of activism online."

So who will take the helm?

Of the four main posts, Secretary General is the most important.

Currently, the person holding that position is 76-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong. He is serving his second term and already in the last congress he needed an exemption from the normal age limit of 65 years.

That should make it unlikely that he will run again, but there has been growing speculation that he could get new waivers for his age and break the two-term limit. Then he could stay on top.

Trong is known for his "fiery furnace" war against corruption launched in 2016, which saw many high-ranking officials, including a Politburo member, sent to jail.

However, if he does not, the main contenders to succeed him are Tran Quoc Vuong, who has a high-level background in the party, and current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who successfully led Vietnam's economy through the pandemic.

But he doesn't expect stark differences between any of those three figures. "Vietnam is a highly institutionalized authoritarian regime; important decisions are made based on the consensus of all leaders," explains Nguyen Khac Giang.

What are the challenges?

The new leadership will have to consider the next five crucial years. The global pandemic is expected to push much of the world into a recession and Vietnam will try to maintain its growth.

At the end of last year, the growth target for 2021 was set at an ambitious 6.5%. By 2020, it had slowed to 2.9%, the lowest level in more than 30 years, but the country is still doing better than most of the rest of the world.

The slower growth last year was, of course, in large part due to the pandemic, and it seems certain that growth in 2021 will be slowed again by the virus.

Vietnam will continue to seek an economic and geopolitical balance between China and the US.

China's aggressive stance is expected to push Hanoi to keep looking to the United States. And if the trade conflict between Washington and Beijing continues, Vietnam is likely to continue to benefit from that as well.

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