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Anton Tsvetov

Expert in the Foreign Policy and Security division at the Center for Strategic Research

70 years after seizing power in Vietnam the Communist Party demonstrates remarkable adaptability. But can it keep up with social change? Today the Vietnamese leadership finds itself before a whole new set of challenges - and perhaps it is time to change again.

Since the August Revolution and declaring independence on September 2nd, 1945 the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) has been the dominating force in Vietnamese politics, leading the fight against colonial French rule and U.S. aggression. After the country's reunification in 1975 and a decade of economic woes the CPV managed to shift gears and start updating its policies and approaches, embracing market reforms and opening up for foreign investment. If Vietnam hadn't changed, the Party wouldn't survive. Today the Vietnamese leadership finds itself before a whole new set of challenges - and perhaps it is time to change again.

Since the doi moi (renovation) reforms were put in place in 1986 various elements of capitalism and market economy began penetrating Vietnam. The changes in the way the economy is managed were bound to change society as well. New interest groups emerged - among them state capitalists, businessmen, foreign investors and factory workers depending on the latter's activity. Foreign money was quick to bring foreign ideas and culture, helping the emergence of a young urban middle class, well connected by the Internet and social media. Apart from that governing crucial economic reforms raised the importance of those who governed - a wide range of central and local bureaucrats. All of these groups have their own interests which do not always coincide and harmonizing them is a task the Party has to address with rigor in order to maintain legitimacy and social peace.

The political environment around Vietnam has also changed. There is no immediate threat to Vietnam's existence as a state and even calling the South China Sea dispute a hazard to the country's sovereignty would be far-fetched. The country now enjoys constructive and effective relations with all regional and global powers, reaping economic and political benefits from such a position. As good as this is, external enemies were one the main drivers of the CPV's dominance during the first thirty years of Vietnam's independence. Now, when the country is at peace with the world and has joined the middle-income group, the population does not have to worry about its physical security and will scrutinize government policies and demand better management of their lives.

The Communist Party has shown quite the flexibility in addressing these issues. Though there are still few businessmen rushing to join the Party, members are not forbidden to do business. Economic performance of local governments is the main criterion for success these days for any provincial Party official. As shown in Thomas Jandl's latest research [1] , local officials are promoted for creating actual economic value and luring investors in respective localities even if they break Party discipline in the process. This kind of decentralization is increasingly important for Vietnam's economic success.

The Party seems to realize the challenges to its monopoly on power posed by a changing social structure. Therefore, the Vietnamese leadership is adjusting the political system, developing channels for the public to voice its opinion. Many observers have paid attention to the growing role of the country's parliament - the National Assembly (NA). Not only is the election process becoming more competitive, the NA itself has become a viable indicator of what is important on the public agenda. The confidence vote, for example, has gotten quite the coverage as a new means of assessing the performance of top state officials. At the same time, televised parliamentary Q&A sessions for government members present themselves as another significant channel for voicing issues that the deputies deem significant to the public.

The big question is whether this is sufficient and whether these policy adjustments are quick enough. New items on the list of issues facing the CPV are added every day. The economy seems to be regaining growth rates, but problems that have been accumulating over the last decades are surfacing as well. Bad debt, lack of financial stability, regional disproportions and poorly managed state-owned enterprises are all a threat to economic prosperity. The government is addressing all of these issues, but there are doubts about how effective the current policies are.

Getting out of the low-middle income group is a tough challenge and there are many traps ahead. Creating demand and buying power at home, maintaining high reinvestment rates, creating a viable high tech and services sector, developing infrastructure and even supplying enough power for the industries are all on the table. Not to mention keeping up with the demographic changes by reforming the pension system and improving healthcare.

Another issue for the CPV to handle is nationalist sentiment in the country and even within the ranks of the Party. Territorial disputes over the South China Sea islands spur anti-China rhetoric on social media and in the expanding blogosphere as well as inspire protests and even riots. If any of the above mentioned economic woes get worse, the discontent could manifest itself in scapegoating Vietnam's northern neighbor, which would be a real headache for the CPV.

All of these issues will certainly be on the agenda of the 12th Party Congress in 2016. The layout of the country's leadership after the rally will show which direction will the Party take. The adopted documents will tell, whether market reforms will be accelerated and how deep they will go. Now is probably the time for the CPV to decide how it can keep itself in power while producing effective and people-centered policies. Perhaps such an adjustment would mean embracing inner debate and becoming an open platform for different social groups to bargain and formulate a balanced course for Vietnam to follow.

1. “State vs. State: The Principal-Agent Problem in Viet Nam's Decentralizing Reforms.” In Politics in Contemporary Viet Nam: Party, State, and Authority Relations, edited by Jonathan London, Basingstoke, UK, 2013

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