Author: Paul Schuler, University of Arizona
Commentary on the Communist Party of Vietnam’s 13th Party Congress has mostly focussed on General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s selection for a third term. But it is the selection of Vietnam’s prime minster, which Congress rankings suggest will be Pham Minh Chinh, that could have a greater impact on the future of the Vietnamese political system at the national and local levels.
At the national level, Chinh’s selection holds important implications for the future of Vietnam’s collective leadership structure. Though commentators often refer to Vietnam’s collective leadership as the ‘four pillars’, it is possibly more accurate to say that two of these pillars — the general secretary and prime minister — underpin collective leadership. Unlike China, Vietnam has been able to balance these posts after the scaling back of party committees shadowing the government at the central level in the late 1980s.
The temporary merging of the presidency and general secretary positions, and the re-establishment of dormant central party institutions like the Central Economic Committee and the Central Internal Affairs Committee in 2012, raised concerns that the Party could attempt to erode this balance of power. The twin selections of Chinh and Trong suggests that this won’t happen, at least in the short term. The party looks set to continue its traditional line of strong prime ministers following Nguyen Tan Dung and Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Chinh is likely to ensure the position of prime minister remains a strong pillar within Vietnamese politics. As chair of the Party’s Central Organization Committee, Chinh was keeper of the nomenklatura lists, an important source of political influence. Like Nguyen Tan Dung before him, he has experience working in the Ministry of Public Security. Chinh’s age and the Party’s proven willingness to grant age exemptions for the top positions also suggests he could remain in the Politburo for an additional term.
The selection of Chinh will also have important implications for local-level institutional reforms. His past efforts to streamline the administrative apparatus suggests that the first reform he may pursue is the elimination of legislative institutions (known as People’s councils) at the district level. The goal of the reform, proposed by the Central Committee in 2008, is to increase efficiency in policymaking and reduce the costs of bureaucracy. It was implemented in 10 provinces from 2010–16, with some studies suggesting it reduced corruption and increased efficiency as intended. Ultimately, the government scrapped the change in 2016 because of ‘different opinions’ within the National Assembly and opposition among local officials.
Chinh’s selection might give this policy new life. Quang Ninh was one of 10 provinces selected for the experiment during his tenure as provincial party chair. He has since publicly expressed support for the proposal, saying the measure will reduce costs. The fact that Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have been given clearance to eliminate district People’s Councils in the upcoming government term further suggests this policy has renewed prospects.
Another reform that Chinh may push for is an effort to merge party and state positions at the local level. The goal of this policy is to ensure that party secretaries at the commune level are concurrently People’s Committee chairs or People’s Council chairs. Under this policy, village leaders are also chairs of village party cells, and therefore party members. Though this policy has been implemented to varying degrees across Vietnam, the 13th Party Congress draft Political Report proposes its expansion across the country.
In contrast to the elimination of People’s Councils, this set of reforms has potentially fewer clear-cut benefits. Disappointingly, one reform frequently paired with the experiment to eliminate district People’s Councils — the direct election of commune People’s Committee chairs — has not been implemented. Requiring commune People’s Committee chairs to simultaneously serve as party chairs signals an unwillingness to expand direct elections at that vital government level, as this would mean the party already has a predetermined candidate.
Perhaps more concerning is the push for village leaders to also be party members. A UN Development Program survey in 2019 found that an estimated 77 per cent of village chiefs (and 100 per cent of the villages surveyed in Quang Ninh) were party members. While research suggests that voters in Vietnam may prefer party members to non-party members as village leaders due to perceived access to government patronage, the high number of party members reflects a push to ensure that the strongest candidates for those positions are local party members. Increasing the overlap between party and village leadership positions could further restrict voter choice.
Chinh’s selection as prime minister carries a number of important implications for Vietnam. At the national level, collective leadership should remain in the short term. At the local level, expect a push for more streamlined government apparatus. Of course, Chinh does not possess the power to implement these changes alone, and he will have to build consensus within the Politburo to push them through. If he is successful, the reforms may increase efficiency but will likely come at the expense of representation.
Paul Schuler is Assistant Professor at the School of Government and Public Policy, University of Arizona.