HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam's pro-business prime minister, who last week appeared to have lost a power struggle in the ruling Communist Party, has made a last-minute comeback and will know Monday if he can re-enter the contest for the top job in the country.
Using a loophole in party rules, supporters of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on Sunday proposed that his name be added to the list of candidates who can contest for membership to the Central Committee, one of the two pillars of the ruling establishment.
If Dung makes it, he will stand a good chance to be elected to the committee, and then would be in a position to challenge his rival, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, for his job. The party general secretary is the de facto No. 1 leader in the collective leadership that governs Vietnam.
"Dung is a skilled and determined infighter and most people agreed there was still a remote chance that he would try to mount some sort of comeback," said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asian expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Trong has for years been trying unsuccessfully to sideline Dung, and while contests for the top post are not unheard of, they are usually settled well before the party congress, which take place once every five years to choose new leaders.
This year, the rivalry between Dung and Trong has gone down to the wire into the party congress that began last Thursday and will end this Thursday. But regardless of who wins, the fundamental makeup of the government or its policies will not change radically, according to analysts.
Dung has built a reputation for promoting economic reforms, and being bold enough to confront China in its territorial aggression in the South China Sea. But even if Trong, a stolid party apparatchik with closer leanings toward China, manages to sideline Dung eventually, it doesn't mean the economic reforms would stall or Vietnam will capitulate to Chinese maritime aggression in Vietnamese waters, according to observers.
"Ideologically, there isn't a yawning gap between Trong and Dung, although most people believe that the pace of economic reform might slow a bit if Trong remains at the helm and Dung is ousted," Hiebert told The Associated Press.
For now, the road to the top is paved with hurdles for Dung. He faces the first one later Monday on the floor of the Communist Party congress that is being attended by 1,510 delegates behind closed doors.
The delegates will pick 234 candidates for an election to the 180-member Central Committee. Of these, 199 people endorsed by the outgoing committee are guaranteed to be picked. The remaining 35 will be chosen from the 62 politicians proposed by some of the delegates, which includes Dung's name.
If he does get chosen, he will still need to win an endorsement from the floor to make it to the final 180 in an election on Tuesday. After that, they will elect at least 16 members to the all-powerful Politburo, which handles the day to day governance of Vietnam. It is possible that the Politburo will be expanded to 18 members this year.
Of the Politburo members, one will be chosen the general secretary, the country's top leader. Three others will be chosen, in respective order of seniority: the prime minister, the president and the chairman of the national assembly.
Dung, who has risen through the ranks of the party and has held senior positions, is a two-term prime minister. This means he can't be the prime minster for a third term, leaving only the general-secretary's post as a viable option.
His economic reforms in the country have helped Vietnam attract a flood of foreign investment and helped triple the per capita GDP to $2,100 over the past 10 years.
Trong's camp accuses him of economic mismanagement, a prime example of which was the spectacular collapse of state-owned shipping company Vinashin, failing to control massive public debt, allowing corruption and for failing to deal with non-preforming loans of state-owned banks.
Vietnam is one of the last remaining communist nations in the world, with a party membership of 4.5 million. But like its ideological ally China, the government believes in quasi-free market economy alongside a strictly controlled society that places several restrictions on its 93 million people.
Minh Van Tran in Hanoi and Grant Peck and Vijay Joshi in Bangkok, contributed to this report.