Vietnam’s unresolved leadership question

Asia Politics World

Author: Hung Nguyen, George Mason University

The 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) concluded on 1 February in Hanoi. Four notable developments emerged that will play a role in shaping the future of Vietnamese domestic politics.

Vietnam's President and General Secretary of the Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong (R, bottom) and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L, bottom) attend the closing ceremony of the 13th national congress of the ruling communist party of Vietnam at the National Covention Center in Hanoi, Vietnam February 1, 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Kham).

Vietnam's President and General Secretary of the Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong (R, bottom) and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L, bottom) attend the closing ceremony of the 13th national congress of the ruling communist party of Vietnam at the National Covention Center in Hanoi, Vietnam February 1, 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Kham).

First, the CPV concluded its most opaque and uneventful national congress since 1991 despite intense internal discussion. Unlike previous party congresses, there were few leaks, no petitions, no open letters to leaders and few rumours, innuendoes or heated exchanges on social media. The party proved to be in firm control of the situation.

Second, the attempt to combine the functions of the party’s general secretary and state president into the hands of one man appears to have been abandoned. Instead, the Congress favoured a return to the four-pillar formula, where top leadership is shared among the party’s general secretary, the state president, the prime minister and the chairman of the National Assembly. This mechanism provides checks and balances that ensure bargaining and compromise in the decision-making process — but it does not allow for quick and decisive actions. In addition to the rigidity of ideology under an authoritarian system, the lack of a strongman can be an obstacle to breakthrough political reforms. Perhaps the dominance in the new politburo of members trained in communist ideology and public security does not augur well for expectations of political liberalisation.

Third, Nguyen Phu Trong will retain his position as general secretary, Pham Minh Chinh is slated to be prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc becomes state president and Vuong Dinh Hue chair of the National Assembly — as expected, none of the top leadership positions will be held by a southerner. This means the traditional practice of electing a southerner to one of the four top positions of national leadership will be abandoned for the first time since 1991.

The fourth significant development is that Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected for an unprecedented third term as the CPV General Secretary, making him the longest-serving general secretary since Le Duan. The fact that Trong was given special considerations twice — in 2006 for age exception and in 2021 for term limit — proves that he is the most powerful person in the country and, at the present time, irreplaceable.

Nguyen Phu Trong had failed to promote a successor for a departure. His close confidant Tran Quoc Vuong, who was the favourite to succeed him, was not given special consideration for his age like Trong and Phuc and was removed from both the Politburo and the Central Committee of the 13th Party Congress. After failing to promote Dinh The Huynh and Tran Quoc Vuong, the question is whether Trong will have enough time to groom and successfully pass the mantle of leadership to a chosen successor.

Trong was able to place a number of his close associates in the new politburo, including many who worked directly under his leadership in the Central Steering Committee for Corruption Prevention and Control. This reinforces his position of power. In addition, there are politburo members who are versed in communist ideology, members with a background in public security and internal party security, as well as those who have economic training and experience.

With such expertise, it appears the new politburo is capable of implementing the tasks set out by the party in the years to come, namely fighting corruption, maintaining ideological commitment, purifying the party of ‘self-transformed’ elements, preventing ‘peaceful evolution’, ensuring political stability and promoting economic development.

The Politburo has a new ‘red seed’ (children of top leaders groomed for high positions): Tran Tuan Anh. He is the Minister of Trade and Industry and son of former state president Tran Duc Luong. Recently promoted to head the Central Economic Commission, Anh is the only politburo member, with the exception of the current foreign minister, who has trained and worked in diplomacy. He may be a potential candidate for minister of foreign affairs after Pham Binh Minh’s second term ends, unless party leaders want to downgrade the input of the foreign ministry which tends to be more liberal and less doctrinaire in the politburo.

Politburo member Vo Van Thuong, a man who toiled for years in ideological jobs, is an interesting case. He was the youngest member elected to the previous politburo and was assigned to head the party’s Propaganda and Training Commission. Re-elected to the Politburo in 2021, Thuong is still the youngest member and was almost immediately promoted to Executive Secretary of the Central Committee’s Secretariat, a position second only to General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. Thuong takes over the position of Dinh The Huynh and Tran Quoc Vuong, who were unsuccessfully canvassed by Trong to be his possible successor.

Pham Minh Chinh emerged as a new star. As head of the Central Organization Commission, Chinh was in charge of party personnel and has earned the support of many Central Committee members. Chinh’s ranking jumped from nine to three in the new politburo, behind only General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Chinh is slated to replace Phuc who will become state president.

Chinh is also a potential candidate to succeed General Secretary Trong when Trong vacates his position. In that case Chinh will have reached a position his predecessors — Nguyen Tan Dung and Nguyen Xuan Phuc — wanted but did not get.

The question is whether Trong wants and has enough time to groom Chinh to handle the roles of general secretary and state president.

Hung Nguyen is Professor Emeritus of Government and International Relations at George Mason University and Non-Resident Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.