CHINA'S most uncertain leadership transition in decades could catalyse lasting institutional innovations in the way leaders are chosen, analysts say.
As more than 2000 Communist Party delegates gather on Thursday to start the 18th Party Congress, observers have been surprised by reports that two respected and reformist-minded proteges of outgoing party boss Hu Jintao have failed to secure seats on the Politburo Standing Committee.
While Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are almost certain to be promoted to party boss and premier-in-waiting, a further five seats on the committee — the inner sanctum of power — are yet to be settled.
Huang Jing, an expert in Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, said ungainly brawling between Mr Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, has continued up until the eve of the congress.
Professor Huang said Mr Hu had ceded positions on the committee in exchange for a series of unorthodox appointments that will allow him to finally take control of the People's Liberation Army.
"I think we all underestimated Hu Jintao's ability to do conspiracy," Professor Huang said. "Hu's calculation is very simple: if he controls the gun then in one or two years Jiang Zemin will have to die and his guys on the Politburo Standing Committee will line up to kowtow to him."
Such a result would ensure Mr Hu's shadow loomed large over his successor, Xi Jinping.
Others believe the tussle for control of the committee is far from over. Some close observers say a process of limited internal elections is under discussion, because there is no other mechanism to resolve internal differences.
"For their own sakes this is the best way for them to maintain the appearance of unity and also to shoulder the blame for lingering hatreds among them," said Professor Feng Chongyi, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Technology, Sydney.
"Hu Jintao will be extremely happy if he can finally claim to have made an innovation at the end of his term," Professor Feng said. "And it is common sense — if he cannot get the upper hand through backroom dealings."
Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program of the University of California, San Diego, said this was the process by which institutional change occurred. "When the risks of sticking with the old method look very large, that's when people change the method," she said.
Professor Huang was more pessimistic. He said the party had actually returned to "informal politics", based entirely on personal patronage.
"From a political scientist's point of view I think that's a great step backwards," he said.
Party members will attend the week-long congress, which will "elect" a central committee of about 200 members and 170 alternate members.
The Central Committee, in turn, is expected to convene a plenum meeting on November 15 which should then anoint the new 25-member Politburo and seven or nine-member Politburo Standing Committee.