By Martin Petty
HANOI (Reuters) - When lawmakers casting ballots are nearly all Communist Party members and "no confidence" is not among the options, a parliamentary censure vote on Vietnam's top leadership might seem like a pointless exercise.
Though heads are unlikely to roll, Saturday's ballot on the performances of about 50 top officials will provide a degree of accountability, and the possibility of a rare glimpse into the dynamics of a party undergoing a period of soul searching after nearly four decades of tight control.
Vietnam is changing fast and rumors are rife of fissures within the secretive party over how to address that change while preserving the status quo. Experts the rifts say broadly pit conservative idealogues against the more liberal, capitalist apparatchiks of a party traditionally ruled by consensus.
"This vote provides a show of openness to try to calm tensions, but what it's done is showed there's infighting between different factions," said prominent political analyst Nguyen Quang A.
Discontent has been simmering in Vietnam over corruption, land grabs and an inefficient state-centered economy - problems economists say became entrenched during a period of boom growth and are now festering due to the scope and pace of measures to fix them.
Experts see no challenge to the party's grip on power in the foreseeable future and say the trajectory of the $178 billion economy, and whether it realizes its much-touted potential as an emerging market star, depend on which faction gains the upper hand.
The vote comes just over a year before a five-yearly congress, when the party chooses who will lead a manufacturing dynamo with high-tech ambitions as it pursues deeper Western engagement and a slew of trade pacts - potential game-changers requiring concessions that may test lucrative patronage networks.
"I don't think there's any disagreement about pursing the big trade deals," Quang A said. "It's more about how this affects the interests of powerful individuals and groups."
Vietnam's first ever confidence vote last year may have backfired, with the outcome lending weight to speculation of unspoken rivalry between the president and prime minister.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung won the full support of just 42 percent of the national assembly and was given "low confidence" ratings by about a third of the house, in contrast to President Truong Tan Sang, who won 330 high-confidence votes from the 498 lawmakers and only 28 low-confidence ballots.
Analysts believe Dung will seek to groom a successor before he retires ahead of the 2016 congress and may have strengthened his influence this year by pushing reforms of a banking sector plagued by bad debt and partial privatization of hundreds of cash-hemorrhaging state-owned enterprises.
"This year's confidence vote takes place amid the heavy hand-wrangling among Vietnam's top echelons ahead of the next party congress ... as such, the outcomes will shed some light on the current state of factional politics," said Phuong Nguyen, a research associate at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"It is believed the PM has rebounded from last year's blow, if not consolidated his power, for that matter. We'll see if the confidence vote will reflect that."
Dung, who met U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday, may have also gained some leverage from his pursuit of stronger U.S. ties and his defiance of China during a recent row over maritime sovereignty.
The standoff with China looks to have sharpened debate within the party about dependence on its neighbor, shown in June when 61 current and former party members sent an open letter to the Central Committee saying failure to escape China's orbit would be "a crime on our nation".
(Editing by Robert Birsel)