Cablegate: 2011 Leadership Transition: Leading Contenders for General Secretary and Prime Minister

DE RUEHHI #0809/01 2530719
O R 100719Z SEP 09

CO N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 HANOI 000809


E.O. 12958: DECL: 2019/09/10


CLASSIFIED BY: Michael Michalak, Ambassador; REASON: 1.4(B), (D)

1. (C) SUMMARY: Preparations are already underway for major leadership changes in Vietnam as the Communist Party gears up for its Eleventh Party Congress in January 2011. As many as six of the Politburo’s fifteen members are expected to retire, including the General Secretary, State President, and National Assembly Chair. Conventional wisdom identifies CPV Standing Secretary Truong Tan Sang and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung as the frontrunners to replace Nong Duc Manh as General Secretary. If Dung does not become General Secretary, odds are he will remain as Prime Minister. Politburo members since 1996, Dung and Sang have amassed unparalleled influence in Vietnam’s Party-state apparatus; they are arguably the two most powerful political figures in the country today. The problem is that, though rivals, Dung and Sang are also too alike for comfort -- both are Southerners, both former HCMC Party Secretaries. Vietnam’s enduring regionalism argues that one, likely Sang, will be frustrated in 2011. If Dung keeps his seat as PM, the two strongest contenders for General Secretary are current National Assembly Chair Nguyen Phu Trong and -- more radically -- the Politburo’s newest member, the conservative head of the CPV Ideology and Education Commission, To Huy Rua.

2. (C) COMMENT: Neither PM Dung nor Standing Secretary Sang is a champion of political reform in the manner of the late PM Vo Van Kiet. But they are known commodities: pragmatic, market-oriented, and in favor of steady, incremental advances in Vietnam’s relationship with the United States. Trong has adopted a similar approach as NA Chair. Rua may be a different story altogether. His elevation to the Politburo both reflects and reinforces a hard-line trend that has been increasingly evident since the crackdown on journalists reporting on the PMU-18 corruption scandal almost exactly one year ago. What role he plays in Vietnam’s leadership transition will say much about whether political liberalization -- on hold for now -- will resume after 2011 or will remain stifled. END SUMMARY AND COMMENT.

Preparations Underway for the 2011 Party Congress
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3. (C) Unlike the Ninth Party Plenum, which installed new members of the CPV Politburo, Secretariat, and Central Committee (ref. A), the Tenth Plenum, held this July, produced virtually no new personnel or policy decisions. Instead, according to contacts with access to the Central Committee, the Plenum focused mainly on preparations for the Eleventh Party Congress in 2011. Following the Plenum, the CPV announced that the once-every-five-year Congress would be held January 2011, a somewhat earlier date than usual to allow for National Assembly elections later in the year. More importantly, our contacts said that the Congress finished assignments to various subcommittees, including bodies responsible for drafting the Congress’s main written product, the “Political Report.” Initial drafting on some of the sections, including the portion on Vietnam’s foreign relations, began several months ago, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX.

4. (C) Of the subcommittees, the one subject to most fervid speculation is the Subcommittee for Personnel Appointments. Chaired officially by General Secretary Nong Duc Manh, but under the day-to-day supervision of the Central Committee’s Organizational Affairs Department Chair, Ho Duc Viet, this subcommittee is charged with preparing the list of candidates for the Eleventh Central Committee and, ultimately, the next Politburo. Viet began the formal process at a “national conference” in Hanoi, August 25-26, in which he instructed grass-roots cadres to begin organizing local and Provincial- level Party Congresses. The actual work of the Appointments Subcommittee is kept extremely

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close hold, particularly as it affects upper-level personnel, and will be subject to change until the Tenth Central Committee’s final plenary session, immediately before the January 2011 Congress itself. As a sign that ideological conservatives continue to consolidate their position, the Subcommittee will take as its guidance directives put forward in the Ninth Plenum, including admonitions about the pernicious effects of Western-oriented “self-evolution” (ref. B), sources familiar with the Plenum’s internal deliberations say. Additionally, the Tenth Plenum instructed Provincial Party Secretaries to compile reports explaining how changes over the past ten years had either contributed to “perfecting socialism” or “regressing into capitalism,” according to the new Can Tho Party Secretary.

Retirements Will Leave Key Openings
5. (SBU) The Personnel Subcommittee will have several important vacancies to consider. The CPV’s Ninth Congress (2001) established an age limit of 60 for first-time Politburo members and 65 for those returning for a repeat term. The latter limit was increased to 67 just prior to the Tenth Congress as an exception to allow Manh, who at the time was 66, to return as General Secretary. Nearly all of our contacts predicted the present leadership would adhere to these age limits in 2011. If the limits are respected, five key Politburo members face mandatory retirement: General Secretary Manh (age 71 in 2011), State President Nguyen Minh Triet (69), National Assembly Chair Nguyen Phu Trong (67), DPM and Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem (67), and DPM Truong Vinh Trong (69). In addition, a sixth member of the Politburo, CPV Inspection Commission Chair Nguyen Van Chi, will be 66 and is reported to be in extremely poor health. A minority view among our contacts held that the 67-year age exception would be extended to NA Chair Trong if he were selected as General Secretary.

Consensus Front Runners: Truong Tan Sang and Nguyen Tan Dung
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6. (C) Most observers identify PM Nguyen Tan Dung and the head of the powerful CPV Secretariat, Standing Secretary Truong Tan Sang, as the leading contenders for Secretary General in 2011. In terms of experience, authority, and potential career longevity, Dung and Sang stand head and shoulders above their counterparts on the Politburo. Both have achieved dominant positions in what many now consider almost as competing wings within the Party- state apparatus: Dung through the Office of Government, government ministries, and his control over Vietnam’s largest state-owned enterprises; Sang through the Central Committee Commissions. Dung and Sang are also in the best position to provide the continuity of leadership that the Party has consistently said it needs. The two entered the Politburo in 1996, which gives them the longest tenure of any member likely to serve through 2011. At the same time, at 60, they are relatively young and would be eligible to serve two terms as General Secretary, were the 67-year age-limit exemption invoked.

7. (C) Of the two, Sang is more frequently mentioned as a replacement for GS Manh. As Standing Secretary, Sang is responsible for the day-to-day running of Party affairs and, our contacts say, has consolidated his hold over the CPV’s Central Committee commissions, which retain an important role in setting broad policy goals and in personnel decisions. Though his tenure as HCMC Party Chief was somewhat tainted by the “Nam Cam” organized crime scandal, Sang is now widely acknowledged as the Party’s primary power broker on a wide range of issues, including on economic matters. Meeting with a delegation of industry representatives from the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council in May, for example, Sang was able to comment authoritatively, in detail and without notes, on topics ranging from civilian nuclear cooperation to energy pricing to regulations on tenders and procurement. Sang has also intervened to stop, at least temporarily, several business

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deals that were rumored to be corrupt and that had aroused public criticism.

8. (C) Sang has in some respects already eclipsed the General Secretary, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX. Others agree that Manh has ceded authority to Sang, but offer a slightly different interpretation. XXXXXXXXXXXX emphasized that Manh himself remains in overall command, but has removed himself from most policy decisions, choosing instead to focus on internal Party building. Ambassador Mitsuo Sakaba, who accompanied Manh on his April visit to Japan, told us that the General Secretary appeared disengaged in his meeting with Japanese PM Taro Aso, reading verbatim and in a monotone a 30-minute prepared statement passed to him by a staff-member; the General Secretary only really showed interest when he was taken to an agricultural site outside Tokyo. Whatever the cause of Manh’s detachment, our contacts agree that Sang has already assumed many of Manh’s normal responsibilities as General Secretary.

9. (C) While PM Dung has frequently been mentioned as a contender for General Secretary, a series of setbacks may have frustrated his ambitions to ascend to the top spot. Dung appears to have been stung by criticisms over his early advocacy for Chinese investment in bauxite projects in the Central Highlands (ref. C), a controversy that has been led publicly by General Vo Nguyen Giap, but which insiders say has been exploited by Sang and others as a proxy to undermine Dung (ref. D). In the most recent Plenum, the Prime Minister reportedly also came under criticism for his government’s poor performance on corruption, education, and health care. Ultimately, Dung’s biggest weakness is the simple fact that his power base derives from efforts to strengthen the government/ state, according to contacts such as XXXXXXXXXXXX. Dung’s efforts to consolidate power within the Office of Government have alienated many in the Secretariat and the commissions of the Central Committee, the CPV’s traditional centers of power, according to Eastern European diplomatic contacts with regular exposure to the upper/middle ranks of the CPV hierarchy.

10. (C) Nevertheless, most contacts suggest that Dung remains well positioned to remain Prime Minister; indeed, this may have been his goal all along. Though stung by criticism, the Prime Minister has developed an unprecedentedly tight hold over the state bureaucracy. Just as critically, Dung -- a former wartime military medic and police official -- retains strong backing within the Ministries of Public Security and Defense, support that has likely only been reinforced during the most recent crackdown on political dissent (ref E). Perhaps as an effort to showcase this, Dung has over the past months made several well-publicized visits to military commands and has addressed MPS functions. Dung also maintains extremely close contacts with MPS Minister Le Hong Anh, though Anh may not continue in his present position past 2011 (septel).

Regionalism: Why the Conventional Wisdom Might be Wrong

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11. (C) If conventional wisdom prevails, Southerners would for the first time occupy the two most important positions in Vietnam’s Party-state structure, and would be in a position to keep their jobs for an additional ten years -- an untenable situation from the standpoint of the CPV’s traditional power brokers in the North. Since Party strongman Le Duan’s death in 1986, the General Secretary has always come from the North, the Prime Minister from the South; there has been an additional effort, less consistently applied, to have the third position in Vietnam’s traditional power troika, State President, come from the Center. XXXXXXXXXXXX argue that regionalism is less and less correlated with ideological differences and of late has

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faded in importance. Additionally, XXXXXXXXXXXX and others maintain, there are important factional divisions among Southerners themselves: Sang, Dung, and State President Triet may all be former HCMC Party Chiefs, but they are not necessarily allies. There is much truth to this; however, our assessment is that having both the PM and President come from the South was an extremely hard pill for many Northerners to swallow in 2006, made palatable only because the top spot was held by a Northerner. Losing the positions of both General Secretary and Prime Minister would be too much for some to contemplate. (Comment: It is also important to keep in mind that factionalism, of which regionalism remains the most potent fault line, increasingly is no longer about ideology -- it is about power, patronage, and wealth. End comment.)

The Dark-Horse Contenders -------------------------

12. (C) Neither Sang nor Dung is likely to step aside without a struggle. If one is forced to sacrifice his ambitions, it is likely to be Sang. If Sang does not become General Secretary, a frequently mentioned alternative could be National Assembly Chair Nguyen Phu Trong, who has ably managed Vietnam’s increasingly assertive national legislature and is a known commodity, having also served credibly as Hanoi Party Secretary. XXXXXXXXXXXX confided that Trong is lobbying to have the 67 limit apply not just to the position of General Secretary, but to each of the “four pillars”: GS, PM, State Secretary, and NA Chair.

13. (C) A more radical choice could be the newest Politburo member, the hard-line chair of the CPV Ideology and Educational Commission (IEC) To Huy Rua. It would be unusual for a recently appointed Politburo member to ascend to the top of the CPV apparatus so soon; however, Rua has developed a formidable curriculum vitae. Rua has been a member of the Secretariat since 2006, which puts him at the heart of CPV policy making; as the long-serving IEC Chair and as a former head of the Ho Chi Minh Political Academy, he has impeccable ideological credentials; and, perhaps most importantly, as the former Party Chair for Haiphong, Rua has “executive experience” running a major provincial-level city. We have no information to corroborate an assertion by Australian academic Carlye Thayer that Rua is an ally of Sang. Rather, Rua is considered to be a protege of fellow Thanh Hoa stalwart, the hard-line former General Secretary Le Kha Phieu. Whatever the case, Rua’s public profile has risen appreciably in the weeks after the most recent Plenum. On August 3, for example, Rua’s views on “self-evolution” made the front-page piece in the leading CPV daily, Nhan Dan. On August 30, state media lavished extensive coverage on his visit to HCMC, where he exhorted the country’s youth to follow the example of Ho Chi Minh. Rua was also shown chairing regional organizing meetings laying the groundwork for provincial Party Congresses.
14. (C) If Dung, on the other hand, is unable to retain his seat -- and Sang, in turn, ascends to the position of General Secretary -- this would likely produce a reversal of the normal regional balance, with a Northerner becoming Prime Minister. But here the field is, if anything, even narrower. For the past 20 years, Vietnam’s Prime Ministers have come from the ranks of serving Deputy Prime Minister: of Vietnam’s five current DPMs, only three are on the Politburo, and of them, two are scheduled to retire in 2011, leaving only Standing DPM Nguyen Sing Hung. Hung is a Northerner and an economic technocrat, and has the additional advantage of being one of PM Dung’s bitterest rivals, according to several contacts. However, Hung is himself an unpopular figure. When the newly convened National Assembly met in 2007 to formally ratify the Party’s selections for PM, DPMs, and government ministers -- normally a perfunctory ritual -- only 58% voted to approve DPM Hung, a shockingly low figure considering that 92% of the NA’s deputies are Party members.

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