Analysts caution that the changes do not mean the party intends to give up its monopoly on power, as enshrined in the constitution, and critics are likely to see them as cosmetic.

However, a pilot programme that changes the way some party leaders are picked could lead to more direct democratic processes across the board, which may accelerate a generational transition.

Vietnam's third-biggest city, Danang, reported on Wednesday that its local party congress had directly elected the municipal party chief for the first time.

In the past, leaders were elected in two steps: first, the congress, which meets once every five years, would select an executive committee, and then that committee would pick a leader.

By giving the party congress the vote instead of the executive committee, the number of electors appears to have been expanded about six times to about 300.

That may seem trivial for a city of roughly 1 million people, but analysts say it is a significant step for a reform that has been tested at lower levels.

"Danang is one of Vietnam's major cities and this adds importance to this experiment," said Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

"Vietnam is gradually experimenting with greater internal party democracy and the direct election of party leaders. This has implications for national politics in future."

Danang is one of 10 provinces and cities involved in the direct elections pilot, which has already taken place in some 1,400 grassroots party branches and more than 200 districts, the newspaper Tuoi Tre reported.

Spillover effect

The reforms look set for the national stage. The party's leading Politburo had already ordered the preparation of a plan for the direct election of the general Secretary at the national congress scheduled for January, Tuoi Tre quoted a senior party member as saying earlier this month.

Such a reform could spill over into the direct election of the state president by the National Assembly and open the door for younger candidates to advance, Thayer said. The current Politburo are all in their 60s and one is 70.

At Vietnam's last party congress five years ago, the fact that there were two candidates on the ballot for general Secretary sparked some debate in China about the pace of that country's own political reform. One commentator was quoted as saying at the time: "The student has surpassed the teacher."

Serious discussion in China about following Vietnam's model was unlikely, however, as preparations get under way for the 18th Party Congress in 2012, said Willy Lam, adjunct professor of history at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Reuters - October 1st, 2010