Loss of Vietnam leader may trigger power struggle. Le Duan's death could jeopardize his sweeping economic reforms

Le Duan's death yesterday removes from the scene the most influential figure in Vietnamese politics since Ho Chi Minh. Mr. Duan's most common image in the West was that of either a gray party bureaucrat or, at best, first among equals with one or two other leaders. Neither image was accurate.

Throughout his career, Duan was something of a rebel within the system. In recent years, he has undoubtedly been the most influential of the Vietnamese leadership. And he demonstrated this by his support and protection of a series of economic reforms which were strongly opposed by other senior leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

The reforms Duan championed have loosened central control over planning, offered peasants and factory workers financial incentives to produce more, and have allowed the private sector to play a limited role in the economy.

Supporters credit the reforms with the modest improvements seen in Vietnam's agriculture and overall economic growth. Powerful opponents of the reforms view them as an erosion of the power and purity of the party.

Duan's prestige alone probably kept the political differences caused by the reforms from boiling over into the open. His passing could pitch the leadership into an acrimonious power struggle that would jeopardize reform. It will certainly force the leadership to decide whether to look for an interim leader, to cobble together a joint leadership, or to be daring and look for a Vietnamese version of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. An interim leader would have enough prestige to hold the party together but would probably not be much younger than Duan. Either of the first two choices seems more likely than the last.

Even before Duan's death, there were signs of disagreement -- or at least disarray -- in the country's leadership. The clearest indication was the delay in holding the sixth Communist Party Congress which should have been held at the beginning of this year. Vietnamese officials had several times been quoted as saying the congress would be the occasion for major leadership changes. But no date for the congress has been announced.

Le Duan was born in central Vietnam in 1907. The one-time railway worker joined the Communist Party soon after it was founded in 1930. By the mid-'30s he was already a veteran of the colonial prison system in French Indochina.

In 1940, Duan went to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to help organize the communist underground there. But he was soon arrested again and imprisoned until 1945. He was then put in charge of the independence struggle against the French in southern Vietnam. When a cease-fire with the French was declared in 1954, Duan was openly skeptical of the agreement and refused to go back to the north. Instead, he sent his deputy, Le Duc Tho.

Duan finally returned north several years later to assume leadership of the party after his longtime colleague and rival, Truong Chinh, had been dismissed for his role in the land reform debacle. He continued to push for the resumption of the war in the south and in the past few years has finally been credited publicly with being the moving force behind the Communist victory in 1975.

The inner workings of the Vietnamese Communist Party are totally unknown to outsiders, but contenders for the leadership probably include the following.

Truong Chinh once outranked Duan but lost his preeminent party position in the late '50s following the excesses of land reform. He has opposed economic reforms. His longtime prot'eg'e, To Huu, was dropped last month as deputy prime minister.

Prime Minister Pham Van Dong is popular, but ill-health appears to prevent him from exercising anything but interim leadership.

Le Duc Tho has frequently acted as leader in times of Duan's absence and has probably ranked second only to Duan in influence within the party. He may well have been Duan's choice as successor, at least in the interim. He is best known in the West as Hanoi's chief negotiator at the Paris peace accords that ended the Vietnam war.

Nguyen Van Linh, party chief for Ho Chi Minh City, was dropped from the Politburo in 1982 but suddenly restored to his position late last year. Linh worked closely with Le Duan and is believed to have seen eye to eye with him over the economic reforms.

Vo Van Kiet, the moving force behind the economic reforms, is probably the closest that Vietnam has to Mr. Gorbachev. A southerner, relatively young, and a maverick like Duan, Kiet is almost certainly too controversial a figure to be selected by the party leadership.

The writer lived in Southeast Asia for 11 years and reported on Indochina for the Monitor from 1981 until early 1986.

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