HANOI, Vietnam - The worst unrest in Vietnam for years has made for a very bad new year for Communist Party General-Secretary Le Kha Phieu.
Even before widespread protests by ethnic minority farmers in two Central Highland provinces this month, analysts had described Phieu as a man fighting for his political life.
While the protests appear to have been contained for now, they have done nothing for Phieu's reputation ahead of a key five-yearly congress of the ruling party tentatively scheduled for late March and expected to approve leadership changes.
Rumours have swirled about Phieu's fate ever since a Party Central Committee meeting last month.
It resolved that no Party members older than 65 years should be re-elected at the congress, with the exception of "key posts," but the committee's ideological chief Huu Tho added that in his opinion, no people over 70 should take such posts.
Phieu is 69 by the Western counting method and 70 by the Vietnamese, which counts age by each Lunar New Year passed.
Analysts believe the former political commissar has upset a broad spectrum of powerbrokers since becoming Party chief in 1997 -- reformers by being too conservative and conservatives by allowing too much reform.
CLUMSY MEETING WITH CLINTON
They also point to his clumsy handling of a meeting with former U.S. President Bill Clinton in November as evidence of his remoteness from the political mood.
Instead of warming to clear popular enthusiasm towards the reconciliation thrust of the first visit by a U.S. president since the Vietnam War, Phieu used the occasion to hammer old Socialist ideals and remind Clinton of past U.S. iniquities.
"It was a horribly inept performance that I think even disappointed conservatives," one diplomat said.
Vietnam expert Carl Thayer of the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii, said the highland protests, which involved thousands of people, could tip the balance against Phieu in the leadership debate.
"It couldn't have come at a worse time for the secretary-general," he said.
Residents have blamed the protests on disputes over land, religion and corruption and heavy handed attempts to impose Communist Party authority.
They have come ahead of a meeting on Tuesday of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that will consider whether sanctions would help press Hanoi to improve its record.
While Phieu had appeared secure in his post until late last year and was even rumoured to be seeking to combine it with the state presidency, talk about his likely political demise has become such common currency, survival would now be a surprise.
"It's almost taken on the feeling of a self-fulfilling prophecy," said the diplomat, adding that retaining such a conservative figure now would send a negative message about Vietnam's reform process to potential foreign investors.
Vietnam has already been struggling to boost foreign investment levels to those before the Asian crisis and it has not been helped by a perception that its economic reform process has lagged behind regional competitors.
The Central Committee is to meet again on personnel changes again this month, with February 20 mentioned as a possible date, but no decisions will be announced until the congress.
RUMOURS ABOUT PREMIER
Rumours have also circulated -- for nearly a year -- about the future of Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, although there has been some speculation he might stay on if Phieu were to go.
"But most people expect him to go -- they say he wants out and will retire in the next 12 months," the diplomat said.
Speculation has been rife about who might take over the two positions but no clear favourites have emerged.
Among those thought to be candidates for the Party job are current state President Tran Duc Luong, National Assembly Chairman Nong Duc Manh -- who comes from an ethnic minority family -- and Hanoi Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong. Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Party economic chief Truong Tan Sang have been talked about as prime ministerial candidates.
Many analysts have been surprised by the rapid unfolding of events in the highlands, to where soldiers and riot police had to be despatched to restore order. They have also been surprised that the tightly controlled state media has giving a relatively detailed account of the unrest.
"I can't really understand how it got so seemingly out of hand so rapidly," another diplomat said. "There has to be more to it than there seems to be. And just the fact that it's been reported is quite extraordinary."
The government says the situation is under control but highland residents have reported lingering tensions.
Diplomats do not see a possibility of the protests spilling over into more general anti-government unrest, not least because of a deep-rooted chauvinism among majority ethnic Vietnamese towards ethnic minorities, who are regarded as rude simpletons at best or dangerous barbarians at worst.
"Each group has their own beefs," said one diplomat. "You're not going to find too many Vietnamese who are going to sympathise with the minorities -- the attitude is you've got your problems and we've got ours."
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