The struggle to become Vietnam’s new leader

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Vietnam faces the reshaping of a new Politburo which will determine the country’s constitutional and geopolitical future at a time of rising Chinese aggression. Since the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, Vietnam’s leadership has been based on “four pillars.” The General Secretary serves as head of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), and is widely considered the most crucial position; the other pillars comprise of the President, Prime Minister and Chair of the National Assembly. Each will be appointed in January 2021.

Phuc lacks the essential trait of devotion to Marxist-Leninist ideology that is needed for the role

The appointments will sit in the context of an unconventional tenure by Nguyen Phu Trong, who adopted a dual-role of General Secretary and President after the death of President Tran Dai Quang in 2018. Such an erosion of “four pillars” government has stoked fears that Trong has begun to model himself on Xi Jinping’s one-man rule; however critics argue this is unreasonable, due to the substantial power of the Vietnamese Prime Minister and their independent power base to constrain the President in a way that is not seen in China. But although the leadership are likely to opt for a return to four separate “pillars”, the trend of unifying party and government posts that has spread upwards from local to national government over the last decade-or-so may suggest Trong’s dual-role should not be disregarded as a freak occurrence. The Vietnamese leadership may need to address such concerns of state and party overlap in their appointments. 

The key position of General Secretary is largely seen as a run-off between the current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and anti-corruption tzar Tran Quoc Vuong. Phuc’s status has been heightened by his successful leadership in tackling covid-19, as well as his international prominence since Trong receded from the spotlight as a consequence of poor health. Yet despite being deemed a more unifying candidate than Vuong, Tuong Vu of the University of Oregon argues that Phuc lacks the essential trait of devotion to Marxist-Leninist ideology that is needed for the role. Furthemore, his appointment would further blur the distinction between party and state, due to an ability to combine his influence over the state as a former PM and what would be his power over the party machinery as General Secretary. 

The succession of Phuc or Ngan may serve to undermine the substantial progress it has made

As Head of the Inspection Committee, Vuong’s most notable attribute is having helped Trong lead a notorious anti-corruption campaign that successfully targeted high-profile figures in the VCP, with Dinh La Thang becoming the first member of the Politburo to be prosecuted and imprisoned since the party took power in 1945. Yet despite the campaign being seen as legitimate among the public, Hai Hong Nguyen of the University of Queensland argues that vested interests and those spurned by the campaign’s perceived factionalism will seek to block his appointment to high office. Incumbent Chair of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan may also be considered a dark horse candidate for the position, although concerns over her gender may prove to be an unsurpassable barricade. 

Setting aside covid-19, those who are elected will face two major policy challenges. First, the increasing aggression of China over its territorial claims. Such a reality will likely lead to greater ASEAN cooperation and a shift toward Washington. Second will be the continuation of Trong’s anti-corruption drive. Trong’s self-described “fight to kill flies” has set the country on a path of modernisation, shifting power from the rent-seekers to the modernisers. Although any leader will be expected to maintain the campaign in some form, the succession of Phuc or Ngan may serve to undermine the substantial progress it has made. Ultimately, the very nature of the state that Vietnam wishes to be, hangs in the balance.

Image: joolsgriff via Creative Commons

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