Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. Photo: Reuters
Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. Photo: Reuters

Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang died on Friday morning after months of public speculation about his poor health, creating a power vacuum in the communist country’s triumvirate leadership structure.

As the former head of the fearsome Ministry of Public Security, Quang was known as a hard-line figure in the ruling Communist Party, but since last year was also seen as a budding rival to the nation’s top politician, Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong.

The cause of Quang’s death was not immediately announced but local media reports quoted a senior healthcare official as saying he suffered from a “serious illness.” Quang was receiving treatment at Hanoi’s Military Central Hospital when he died just after 10am this morning, the reports said.

A member of the Politburo since 1997 and the dominant force within the Ministry of Public Security for the last 15 years, Quang has served as the ceremonial head of the government since becoming president at the January 2016 Party Congress, a quinquennial event.

It was no secret, however, that Quang often butted heads with Trong, who has launched a politicized anti-corruption drive and shifted the Party back towards its ideological roots since the Congress. While neither official had made any public comments about their disagreements, the rivalry had been a rich source of speculation over the last year.

Some thought that Quang would have been sidelined at a plenum of the Party’s Central Committee in May, though this wasn’t the case. Similar speculation of a top-level falling out arose when Quang failed to make any public appearances for weeks in August of last year.

He was conspicuously absent at several important ceremonial events, including a commemoration marking the end of the Vietnam War, which the president is usually presides over. He was also a frequent no-show for meetings with prominent foreign dignitaries.

That sparked speculation that Quang had been toppled by Trong, though there was never any evidence of such a power play. Others thought Quang’s absence was due to ill health, which now appears logical, although some of the more conspiratorial-minded commentators thought he might have been poisoned while on a state visit to China.

Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (C) stands next to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (R) and President Tran Dai Quang (L) in a 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP/Pool/Kham

Quang had re-emerged from his absence with gusto. In recent months, he had made numerous state visits to foreign nations and hosted senior global leaders at home. But he was reportedly unable to stand unaided when Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Hanoi earlier this month. On Wednesday, he hosted a meeting with China’s chief justice, which was to be his last public appearance.

Controversy encircled Quang after nationwide protests broke out in June against Chinese investment and a repressive cybercrime law, which Quang had taken a vocal position in championing. After the protests, he allegedly told a well-read state-run newspaper, Tuoi Tre Online, that he thought Vietnam needed a demonstration law so that citizens could protest peacefully and freely.

Within days of the newspaper publishing his alleged comments, the Ministry of Information ordered it to change the article’s headline and remove Quang’s words, which the ministry said were “false.” The newspaper was later fined and ordered to close for several months for supposedly misquoting the president.

Some analysts felt this was because Quang’s quote directly contradicted Trong’s message and went against the party line. The crackdown on Tuoi Tre was effectively censored Quang at Trong’s camp’s behest, a move that revealed fractures at the Party’s highest level.

Vietnam President Tran Dai Quang and Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong. Image: Twitter

Quang will not be missed, however, by pro-democracy activists and rights groups.

“President Quang’s legacy is a multi-year crackdown on human rights and putting more political prisoners behind bars in Vietnam than any time in recent memory,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, a rights group.

“More than anyone else, he’s responsible for the Ministry of Public Security’s expansion into all aspects of daily Vietnamese life, bringing with it all the rights abuses, corruption and extortion that came with that increased police presence…He was hardly a man of the people and it’s rather doubtful that the ordinary Vietnamese will miss him very much.”

The presidency will now be assumed by incumbent Vice President Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh, placing for the first time two women in four of the government’s most important positions. (The other is National Assembly chairperson Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan.)

However, Thinh isn’t likely to hold onto the position for long, as the National Assembly is expected to convene in the coming months to vote on a new president. As analysts have speculated on Quang’s possible ouster for more than a year, there is already informed insight into who might win the role.

Imprisoned Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (L), also known as “Mother Mushroom”, stands trial at a courthouse in Nha Trang on June 29, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Vietnam News Agency / STR

One possible candidate is Nguyen Thien Nhan, the current Ho Chi Minh City party chief and former head of the Fatherland Front, an umbrella organization that controls Party-endorsed civil society groups. Nhan is not widely held as an exceptional figure within the Party nor necessarily a competent technocrat, given lasting impressions of his weakness as education minister during the 2000s.

But given the presidency’s mostly ceremonial responsibilities, an unexceptional figure could be what Trong desires after bumping heads with the now deceased Quang. Another possibility is the fast-rising Tran Quoc Vuong, who heads the Central Committee’s Inspectorate

With the next Party Congress due in early 2021, when the current Party leadership is expected to change wholesale, whoever takes Quang’s position will likely be viewed as a stopgap until the entire Party bureaucracy gets its say over a leadership transition.

Senior positions within the Party and government tend to be divided across geography and ministries to ensure fairly equal representation of cadre and to prevent any one faction or geographical grouping from gaining too much power. With Quang’s demise, a new balance will need to be struck and could stir more factional infighting.

Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, January 28, 2016. Photo: AFP/Pool/Luong Thai Linh

Quang served as deputy minister of public security between 2006 and 2011, and then as minister until he was formally appointed president in April 2016. In the role, he ensured his ex-ministry maintained power within the Party.

So much so, in fact, that just months after the last Party Congress a prominent Vietnam expert, Carlyle Thayer, correctly predicted: “increased representation of current and former public security officials on the Central Committee and Politburo is likely to result in increased anti-corruption efforts as well as suppression of pro-democracy activists.”

There was widespread speculation that Quang was poised to take over as the Party’s general secretary at the next Party Congress, where Trong, 74, is expected to step down after having served two full terms in the country’s most powerful position, his second term beyond the Party’s usual retirement age. With Quang’s untimely demise, a significant leadership vacuum has opened.

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