HANOI: Vietnam's ruling Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected Sunday -- a victory that makes him the most powerful leader in decades -- but his win was overshadowed by a serious coronavirus outbreak in the country.
Trong, a 76-year-old pro-China conservative who is rumoured to be in poor health, was given the nod after a week of closed-door talks at the twice-a-decade Communist Party congress. It will be his third term in office -- a feat unprecedented in Vietnam's modern era.
"On Sunday morning, comrade Nguyen Phu Trong was elected the General Secretary of the 13th Communist Party Central Committee," the Vietnam News Agency reported.
Another stint in the top job for Trong is seen as a boost for his high-profile anti-corruption campaign, officially dubbed a "blazing furnace", that has swept through the party, police and armed forces.
"We can expect Trong to continue to push" his campaign, which has claimed high-level party officials, including three Politburo members, said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and an expert on Vietnam.
With graft widespread across all state sectors, Trong’s anti-corruption drive has largely proved popular with the Vietnamese public and many party members.
"We admired him for his determination and efforts to cleanse and purify the party," said Nguyen Tran Trung, a long-time Communist Party member.
"Though not in good health, his presence in the leading position still scares bad cadres in the apparatus. He plays a major role in preserving the Communist Party," the 78-year-old state official told AFP.
But for opponents of the regime, the last five years have been marked by escalating repression, according to rights groups and analysts, who warned Trong is likely to push forward with the crackdown during his third stint in power.
"We can expect a continuing crackdown on dissenting voices in the online social media," Thayer told AFP.
Prisoners of conscience have doubled from 84 to 170 since the previous congress in 2016, according to Amnesty International, which says a large and growing proportion are jailed based on their expression online.
Trong, the first party general secretary to serve a third term since the "doi moi" era of economic reform began in 1986, has also served as president since 2018.
For the moment he remains so, but will step down later this year when the National Assembly appoints a replacement.
This is expected to be Nguyen Xuan Phuc, currently prime minister, who has focused on the country's economic growth and integration, securing a number of international trade deals.
The 66-year-old has also steered the country's robust response to the coronavirus pandemic which helped case numbers low, with just 35 deaths recorded.
The congress in Hanoi had wanted to showcase that achievement, but a new cluster close to the capital last week spoilt the celebrations -- forcing the meeting to close a day earlier than planned.
Authorities warned the outbreak was the most serious yet.
By Sunday, Vietnam had recorded nearly 1,800 cases of the coronavirus, nearly 200 of which were recorded in the past four days.
Authorities also confirmed the first case in Vietnam of the South African variant in an expert who arrived from the country in late December.
On Saturday the health ministry approved a vaccine made by AstraZeneca and continued to test thousands of people and lock down high-risk communities.
The final members of the country’s "four pillar" leadership are expected to be Pham Minh Chinh — who is in line to be prime minister -— and Vuong Dinh Hue to head the rubber stamp national assembly.
Chinh, 62, is head of the party's important Central Organisation Commission, and has strong ties with the police.