Who will lead Vietnam in 2021?

Author: David Brown, California, East Asia ForumVietnamese politics has reverted to its customary opacity. General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and his intimates in the Communist Party’s secretariat remain intent on party renewal, a wholly internal affair. Going into 2019, Trong’s tightening leash on the sprawling Ministry of Public Security and his crusades against corruption and for the elevation of the ‘model cadre’ had secured for him an iron grip on the 2021 succession scenario. Going into 2020, things are a little different.

Vietnam's Communist Party's General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong is seen in Hanoi, Vietnam, 2 April 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Kham).

Inasmuch as one could tell from pronouncements by Vietnamese officials at the midpoint between party congresses, both party and state were solidly behind Trong’s reforms. If there’s still a substantial bloc of party members who yearn for the days when discipline was lax, provocative ideas were tolerated and opportunities for making some money on the side were plentiful, they’ve been keeping a mightily low and ingratiating profile.

Observers have struggled to discern who will be elevated to top positions when the all-powerful Party convenes its 13th Congress in January 2021. Five years earlier, partisans of the former prime minister and his enemies traded charges online. In 2019, however, campaigning for elevation to top jobs has been decidedly low-key and discreet, starving social media of matter for chatter.

There was talk that Trong would stay on for another five years. However, a sudden stroke put him in the hospital late in April and although Trong returned to occasional public view a month later, he has seemed a bit wobbly. A planned trip to the United States to speak at the UN General Assembly and to meet with US President Donald Trump was cancelled. That fed expectations that the 75 year old General Secretary (and since the preceding October, also the head of state) would relinquish his offices at or before the Party congress.

There are a few obvious contenders for elevation to the two roles Trong now fills.

If Trong does not seek further office, Tran Quoc Vuong will almost certainly be his choice to succeed him as general secretary. Vuong is 66 and has never held a government position. Instead, he has worked his way up through the Party secretariat. As its current head and the man in charge of Trong’s campaign against corruption, Vuong has been Trong’s indispensable aide.

Pham Minh Chinh, another party insider, seems a good bet to claim one of the regime’s top jobs. As head of the Organization Commission of the Party, Chinh has headed the search for ‘talented and virtuous cadre’, so many new faces on the Party’s Central Committee will likely consider him their benefactor. Younger at 61 and more broadly based than Vuong, Chinh rose through police ranks before serving as a provincial party secretary and then moving to the Party secretariat.

Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan and Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s chances for advancement have also increased as Trong’s vigour has waned.

Ngan performed capably in cabinet roles. That led to a Politburo seat and now she is the Chair of the National Assembly. She can aspire to serve as Vietnam’s first female head of state.

If Prime Minister Phuc campaigns vigorously, he can perhaps follow Trong as head of the Party. His administration has been relatively scandal-free and the economy has boomed. Phuc is the obvious rallying point for business barons and others who aim to limit the Party’s sway over economic and social policy.

Until 2006, Nguyen Xuan Phuc was an obscure official in central Vietnam. Selected to help manage then prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s office, Phuc proved so helpful that he was made first the cabinet chief of staff and later the deputy prime minister in charge of intra-government coordination. He did well in those roles too and by avoiding close identification with Dung, seems to have been a consensus choice to lead Vietnam’s government when Dung was forced into retirement in 2016.

Now 65, Phuc can hope that intra-party backlash against the current heavy emphasis on dogma — and the consequent underweighting of policy — could propel him rather than Vuong into Vietnam’s top job.

The economy expanded by nearly seven per cent again in 2019. Vietnam was well positioned to profit as an alternative source of manufacturing for high-tech gadgets and quality wearables when US trade relations with China soured. Now, before its workforce ages, the party-state is challenged to turn transient competitive advantages into permanent gains.

A host of issues cry out for greater emphasis and consistent attention. Like most nations, Vietnam faces a crisis in environmental governance that was underlined this autumn by abysmal air quality. The public schools and medical care system that were properly the pride of socialist Vietnam are now institutions where only those who can pay well are well served. Farmers are still denied ownership of the land they till. The gulf between the haves and have nots continues to widen.

In at least one respect, however, Vietnam may have turned a corner. Endemic, quasi-institutionalised corruption has been a huge obstacle to national development. In Vietnam as elsewhere, campaigns in favour of honest government normally run out of steam after a few offenders are punished as a warning to the rest. But Trong’s fight against corruption has unrolled as he vowed: ‘in a resolute, persistent and continuous manner, sparing no guilty party’. Dozens of senior officials have been prosecuted on corruption charges, many more are under investigation and it is possible to believe that the effect will be lasting.

David Brown is a former US diplomat with extensive experience in Southeast Asia and particularly Vietnam.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2019 in review and the year ahead.

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