Hanoi: Vietnam`s ruling communists met on Monday to choose a new batch of leaders who are expected to oversee a drive to modernise the economy while refusing to abandon the country`s authoritarian political system.
The secretive congress aims to map out the country`s direction for the next five years in the face of mounting economic challenges including rising inflation and a weakening currency.
Nearly 1,400 delegates were expected to vote behind closed doors for an elite Central Committee, which party sources say has taken on an increasingly important role as the communists pursue more internal debate, while ruling out significant political change, including multiple parties.
Sometime either Monday or Tuesday, the 200 newly-elected Central Committee members were expected to vote for the party`s general secretary and hold a separate ballot for the 17-member Politburo, which sets government policy.
Delegates -- who refer to each other as "comrade" -- have gathered since Wednesday for their five-yearly congress at a hall decorated in communist red, with images of the party`s founder and revered first president Ho Chi Minh watching over them.
Observers were expecting Nguyen Phu Trong, 66, who some party sources say is close to Vietnam`s rival China, to be elected party chief.
An Asian diplomat described Trong as "grandfatherly", and analysts see him as posing little threat to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
The Prime Minister was likely to keep his position as the country`s most powerful figure, despite an internal power struggle within a political system which analysts say is slowly evolving despite its rigidity.
Analysts say Vietnam`s years of economic growth have helped the communist party to win popular support, but the regime does not tolerate any perceived threats to its authority.
The US embassy said the Internet and free expression were increasingly stifled in Vietnam last year during a clampdown that saw almost 40 people arrested or convicted.
Former chairman of the National Assembly Nguyen Van An said the makeup of the Central Committee was crucial.
"The wrong choice will bring about backwardness", he was quoted as saying by the VietnamNet news website.
But critics doubt a significant change in direction by a party that last week affirmed "the key role" for its state economic sector -- 25 years after war-shattered Vietnam began a "doi moi" policy to embrace the free market and move away from a rigid command economic system.
Calls have mounted for decisive leadership to reform the economy and tackle challenges that include a trade deficit, poor infrastructure and inefficiency among state-owned enterprises.
In a country afflicted by systemic graft, some delegates stressed the need for their elected leaders to take action.