Vietnam begins internal party election, leadership still uncertain

HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam’s progressive prime minister was among preliminary nominations for the Communist Party’s central committee on Sunday, an official said, maintaining the possibility of him contesting the party leadership to be decided this week.

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (C) arrives for the opening ceremony of the 12th National Congress of Vietnam's Communist Party (VCP) in Hanoi, Vietnam, January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Luong Thai Linh/Pool

The political future of Nguyen Tan Dung remains uncertain, however, after he was not among leadership candidates agreed by top decision-makers at a recent meeting, a surprise twist that saw the five-yearly congress of the secretive party open on Thursday under a cloud of controversy.

His committee nomination at an early stage of the internal election process means he technically could still launch a bid to become party chief. Dung, 66, has not spoken publicly about his future and his absence from Sunday’s preliminary nominations would have ruled him out.

Dung was until recently tipped by diplomats and analysts to become the next party boss, which could have strengthened the hand of his progressive faction. He is widely seen as a modernizer and credited with driving recent economic reforms.

Vu Ngoc Hoang, a senior Central Propaganda Department official, confirmed that Dung and several other politburo members were among those nominated.

“But that’s only a list,” he told reporters. “Every person introduced gets on to the list,” he said, stressing the nominations were preliminary.

Dung’s inclusion is likely to add to excitement and social media speculation about the possibility of a leadership showdown at what is normally considered a stale, procedural affair.

To stand a chance, Dung would have to decline his preliminary nomination to the central committee. The 1,510 congress delegates could then vote to reject his withdrawal, thus keeping him in contention for further stages of the internal election.

Vu Trong Kim, Vice President and General Secretary of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, earlier on Sunday confirmed leaked reports that prior to the congress incumbent General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, 71, was nominated to extend his tenure and Dung had withdrawn from the contest when the politburo was deciding its candidates.

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In rare comments about internal politburo procedures, Kim, a member of the outgoing central committee, praised Dung and said there was 100 percent politburo support for Trong.

“I very much welcome comrade Nguyen Tan Dung and some other comrades in the politburo who voluntarily withdrew from being nominees to gather credit for comrade Nguyen Phu Trong,” Kim said told some local media. An audio recording of Kim’s interview was heard by Reuters.

Kim confirmed the agreed nominations, besides Trong, were Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang for president, Dung’s deputy, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, for premier and legislative vice-chairwoman, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, to head the National Assembly.

Analysts and diplomats say Dung’s chances of a fightback are slim, but possible, if he calls on support he has cultivated among the wider party.

Dung’s office did not respond to a request by Reuters for comment.

Experts say Dung is an ambitious, decisive figure and his exclusion from leadership nominations suggests concerns among the party’s old guard that he could test Vietnam’s traditional consensus leadership model.

Edmund Malesky, an expert on Vietnamese politics at Duke University, said the congress was not scripted and key to any outcome was a central committee “way more powerful” than those of other communist states.

“The question is whether Dung wants it... He’s not going to come out and say it in an obvious way,” he said.

“He himself has benefited from the influence of the central committee, and we know that he’s capable of mobilizing votes ... if he decides he wants it, then this is a real possibility.”

Reporting by Martin Petty; Additional reporting by Mai Nguyen; Editing by Andrew Bolton