BANGKOK, Thailand -- Vo Van Kiet, Vietnam's new prime minister, is a cautious reformer who bridges the gap between the conservative Communist Party leaders and younger liberals who want rapid change to a market economy.
'Kiet has long pushed for more pragmatic economic policies, but he has been careful never to push too fast for the party mainstream,' said a Hanoi-based diplomat.
Kiet, selected without opposition, is seen capable of dealing with both the conservative and liberal wings of the party without alarming either.
The main question about the 68-year-old former economic planning chief is his decisiveness and leadership at a time when the country faces a loss of support from the Soviet Union, difficult decisions in Cambodia and severe economic problems.
Kiet' s election puts a southerner at the top of the Vietnamese communist government for the first time.
Born Nov. 23, 1922, in Cuu Long province in the Mekong River Delta, Kiet joined underground communist activities against the French colonial rulers of Vietnam when he was 16. He fought in bloody insurrections against the French in 1940 and 1945 and rose to deputy party secretary of his province.
Kiet moved to Saigon in 1959 and a year later was secretly appointed an alternate member of the party central committee. He was active in organizing the People's Revolutionary Party, the shadowy southern branch of the party.
Although not a military man, he served on the military committe of the party through much of the Vietnam War. He worked in the Central Office for southern Vietnam that was the target of repeated American bombing.
Immediately after the war, Kiet headed the party in Saigon, newly renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and was mayor of the city.
Residents recall him as a relatively pragmatic and reasonable administrator. They regretted his move to Hanoi the following year because that opened the way for the much harsher 'socialist transformation' of the southern economy that triggered the refugee exodus.
In Hanoi Kiet became a full member of the party politburo and central committee, focusing on party affairs for six years.
In April 1982 he shifted to the government side, becoming powerful chairman of the State Planning Commission and deputy prime minister.
As virtual economic czar, Kiet began many of the economic experiments that became the basis for nationwide economic reform five years later.
He allowed limited private enterprise and encouraged key areas such as Ho Chi Minh City and Haiphong to convert state enterprises to profit- oriented businesses.
Kiet's reputation as an economic administrator suffered a setback in March 1988 when he took over as acting prime minister following the death of Prime Minister Pham Hung.
His few months in office were marred by serious food shortages and triple-digit inflation.
'He just was not decisive enough. Drastic action was needed, but Kiet seemed to shy away from tough decisions,' said a member of the National Assembly.
Kiet returned to being deputy prime minister when Do Muoi was elected prime minister. Muoi, a crusty disciplinarian, made the painful decisions to slash subsidies and give farmers more incentives to produce that helped subdue inflation.
Vietnam's economy has picked up under the stimulus of the economic changes that Kiet espoused. The farmers produce a surplus, state enterprises are more efficient and exports are growing quickly.
As prime minister, however, he again faces tough decisions.
Kiet will have to make up for the loss of aid and trade from the Soviet bloc, pare down a serious budget deficit, find new sources of development capital and help settle the conflict in Cambodia.