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Vietnam Communist party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong applauds during a party meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, Jan. 31, 2021.Lê Trí Dung/The Associated Press

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party re-elected its 76-year-old chief Nguyen Phu Trong for a rare third five-year term on Sunday, as the Southeast Asian country battled its biggest coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began.

Trong, who emerged on top in a power struggle at the last congress in 2016 and has spearheaded a “blazing furnace” crackdown on corruption in the last five years, was granted an exception to party rules that say people over the age of 65 should retire, cementing his position as one of the country’s strongest and longest-serving leaders for decades.

“Comrade Nguyen Phu Trong was elected to be the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam, term XIII,” the official Vietnam News Agency (VNA) reported.

Trong’s re-election as party general secretary came at a five-yearly party congress in Hanoi, where 1,600 party delegates from across Vietnam are concluding eight days of meetings, mostly behind closed doors, to pick a new leadership team, aiming to bolster Vietnam’s ongoing economic success – and the legitimacy of the party’s rule.

Vietnam has no paramount ruler and is officially led by four “pillars”: the chief of its Communist Party, the most powerful post; a president; a prime minister; and the National Assembly chair.

While ascent to the highest levels of Vietnamese politics is governed by party regulations, in reality the highly secretive process revolves around building consensus and vying for control of the decision-making Politburo.

That means exceptions to rules can be granted – especially if consensus on the top candidates cannot be reached.

China’s President and ruling Communist Party chief Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Trong on Sunday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

HANOI SHUTS SCHOOLS

Since taking office in 2011, Trong has built up a power base that saw him emerge on top in a showdown with former prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the last congress in 2016.

His crackdown on corruption, described by government critics as politically motivated, has seen dozens of high-level officials, including one Politburo member, sentenced to lengthy jail terms.

Trong’s re-selection by members of the ruling Communist Party came as Vietnam battles a new COVID-19 outbreak that has infected at least 238 people and spread to at least nine cities and provinces in the country, including the southern economic hub of Ho Chi Minh City and the capital, Hanoi.

After the new outbreak was detected, state media have reported the congress would end on Monday, a day earlier than planned.

The Ministry of Health reported 50 new COVID-19 infections early on Sunday, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 1,817, with 35 deaths.

Authorities in Hanoi announced on Sunday that all schools in the city would close, after locking down several residential areas and a factory in the northern province of Hai Duong, the outbreak’s epicentre, since the first cases of community transmission in almost two months were detected there last week.

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