HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — One-party rule in communist Vietnam is a far better alternative to authoritarianism disguised as democracy, the 71-year-old ideologue who was re-elected as party chief and consequently the country's leader said Thursday.
"A country without discipline would be chaotic and unstable ... we need to balance democracy and law and order," said General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (pronounced noo-YEN' FOO' CHONG').
Trong was re-elected Wednesday as head of the Communist Party and the leader of a 19-member Politburo that will govern Vietnam for the next five years, after squashing a short-lived challenge for the top post by his No. 2, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (pronounced noo-YEN' TAN' ZOONG').
The Communist Party has been in power since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, and every five years elects a new leadership. The party has 4.5 million members in a country of 93 million people, who have no direct say in how their leaders are elected. People do elect a National Assembly, but it is considered a largely rubber stamp body whose members are vetted by the Communist Party before they can contest.
The renewal of the leadership means little change for Vietnam, where the people have no direct role in selecting the party leaders.
"I very much hope the new faces in the Politburo will push with reforms and bring the country forward, but I don't know whether they can do that," said Tran Thi Tram, selling lotteries on the sidewalk in central Hanoi. "They will also have to really tackle the corruption problem, Otherwise the people would be the ones to suffer most."
Trong cited the National Assembly and the thousands of party organizations at grassroots as representing the voice of the people.
"Vietnam's Communist Party is one-party rule but we also have principles of democracy and accountability of the leaders. Otherwise, good deeds would be credited to individuals while failure would be blamed on the group and no one would be disciplined," he said.
He said that the party "can never become authoritarian" unlike some democracies.
"It is not proper to name them, but in a number of countries, in the name of democracy, all decisions are made by one person. So which is more democratic?"
There is no organized movement in Vietnam calling for multi-party system.
Dissidents, who are active on social media, are quickly crushed. The biggest organized group that's vocal against the one-party system is based in the United States, and is branded a terrorist group by the government.
U.S. officials have said Vietnam has shown greater restraint in arrests and prosecution of dissent last year, but stressed it needs to do more to improve its human rights records. According to U.S. officials, there were about 100 prisoners of conscience in 2015, down from more than 160 in 2013. International human rights groups and the U.S. government has criticized Vietnam for using vague security laws to silence dissidents, but Hanoi has said only law breakers were put behind bars.
Trong is expected to continue to push the economic reforms led by Prime Minister Dung during his 10 years in office. Dung will be replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc after his appointment is endorsed by the National Assembly later this year.
Trong's camp has accused Dung of corruption and mismanagement, but analysts believe that the accusations were an excuse for the widespread corruption that seeps through the system and is not likely to vanish overnight with Dung's departure.
Addressing that question, Trong said there was a need to "particularly sustain the accountability and responsibility of the leaders and supervise power to ensure corruption and wastefulness are brought under control."
Despite having a reputation for being pro-China, Trong is not likely to be totally subservient to Beijing as that would risk massive anger from ordinary Vietnamese who harbor a deep dislike and historical suspicion of China. Tensions have spiked recently over overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing's massive construction of man-made islands has pushed the Philippines and Vietnam closer to the U.S.
"Many people were afraid that a conservative trend would prevail if Mr. Trong is re-elected. But ... whoever they may be, and however conservative they may be, when they are at the helm they are under pressure to carry out reforms," Le Hong Hiep, a visiting Vietnamese fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore, told The Associated Press.
The third most important member elected to the Politburo was Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang, who will be the country's new president.
Tran Van Minh contributed to this report.