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HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam's ruling Communist Party has appointed for the first time a U.S.-educated official to its powerful politburo, a landmark decision as pressure mounts to reform an economy stagnating after years of boom growth.
The top decision-making body of the party that has ruled Vietnam since 1975 voted to increase its membership and bring in Nguyen Thien Nhan, a deputy prime minister overseeing education, health and technology, it said on its website (dangcongsan.vn).
Nhan, 59, a former vice mayor of Ho Chi Minh City, received a master's degree in public policy at the University of Oregon in 1993 and joins an elite group long dominated by politicians educated locally or in the former Soviet Union.
Vietnam's ruling party is facing its toughest economic challenges in years and has vowed reforms to tackle crippling debt in its banking system, and mismanagement at scores of cash-sapping state-owned firms.
Economists say policymakers have acted effectively to rein in inflation but have been too slow, or reluctant, to implement the sweeping structural changes needed to revive what was a promising "tiger" economy now growing at its slowest pace in 13 years, and put Vietnam back on foreign investors' radar.
Vietnam's economy is hamstrung by weak credit growth and consumer demand that has forced 113,000 businesses to close since 2011, when inflation soared to over 20 percent and foreign investors delivered only a sixth of the $64 billion pledged.
The politburo also elected its second female member, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, deputy chairwoman of parliament. Ngan, also 59, is a former deputy minister of trade and finance. The two appointments will increase the politburo's size to 16 members.
Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra said Nhan's selection was likely aimed at boosting Vietnam's image among investors in Europe and the United States.
"Nhan's elevation is a reflection of the risk-adverse leadership in Vietnam," he said. "Despite his promotion and assumption of greater responsibility he is still responsible to the politburo and its consensus decision-making."
Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Daniel Magnowski