The death of the Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang on September 21 was met with mourning in Vietnam and condolences by world leaders, as well as considerable speculation by Vietnam watchers over what his replacement will mean for the country’s future politics.
But all that speculation ended on Wednesday (October 3) evening when the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee agreed unanimously that his replacement should be Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, already the country’s most powerful politician.
The decision must be agreed to by the National Assembly later this month, though with no other candidates and it being a rubber stamp body Trong will almost certainly assume the position.
The stakes of the Central Committee’s decision are potentially immense. For decades, political power has been shared between four leadership positions, each of which controls a different sphere of governance in Vietnam’s one-party state.
Trong, the de-facto leader of the country, already controls the Communist Party and its decision-making apparatus.
The prime minister presides over the civilian government, while the president, as head of state, serves as commander-in-chief of the military, engages in foreign visits, and is responsible for appointing the prime minister. The chairperson of the National Assembly, meanwhile, controls the legislature.
Since all sit on the Politburo, this configuration allows politics to be run by consensus decision-making and, more importantly, prevents any one politician from gaining too much power.
The belief by many in the Party that former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had amassed too much individual power was one reason politicians coalesced to dismiss him at the 2016 Party Congress.
The Chinese Communist Party, by comparison, decided in the 1990s to unify the Party general secretary and state president positions, allowing for the situation where current President Xi Jinping wields enormous power.
Now, Vietnam appears to be moving in the same direction as China, raising the possibility that the consensus-based decision-making structure – the foundation on which the Communist Party has limited individual power and unchecked influence – could be coming to a close.
Beyond his current powers as Party general secretary, which he has increased substantially since January 2016, Trong will soon also wield the powers of the president.
These include the ability to suspend laws introduced by the prime minister, alter the Constitution, propose the dismissal of other senior officials, and serve as commander-in-chief of the military.
Because of those significant powers, the presidency has customarily been seen as ceremonial, with occupiers of the office seldom using their granted powers.
If the merger takes place, which is almost certain, Trong could become the most powerful figure in Vietnamese politics since Le Duan, a Communist Party hero and strongman who served as Party general secretary from 1960 until 1986.
It remains uncertain how the rank-and-file of the Communist Party will react to the surprise decision. But it will almost certainly cause friction within the senior hierarchy of the Party, where loyalties, allegiances, patronage and policy disputes have long been kept in check by the “four pillar” structure of power-sharing.
“Since Tran Dai Quang was diagnosed with a terminal illness… Trong began lobbying for the two offices to be merged,” wrote Carl Thayer, a veteran Vietnam expert of the The University of New South Wales, in a briefing published on Wednesday morning.
Ironically, when the topic of unifying the two posts was discussed by the Communist Party earlier this decade, Trong was skeptical and even “expressed his concern on the risk of unchecked power consolidation,” says Nguyen Khac Giang, a political researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research at the Vietnam National University.
Analysts are already asking why Trong appears to have had a change of heart. One possible answer is he wants to consolidate even more political power for himself. Another is that unifying the two posts provides some stability at a time when the Party is rapidly changing, as is Vietnamese society.
Since retaining his position as Party general secretary in 2016, Trong has unleashed a wide-reaching anti-corruption purge that has seen thousands of officials, including senior politicians, punished, dismissed or jailed for alleged graft.
Trong, a known ideologue, has also orchestrated a morality campaign inside the Party. In October 2016, a list of 27 “manifestations” of immorality were drawn up, including nine sins of iniquity in political ideology, as an attempt to clean the Party of graft, vice, laziness and the entanglement of “money interests” that has grown since the 2000s.
Part of his goal, Trong says repeatedly, is to avoid the possibility of “self-evolution,” a euphemism for political reform towards democracy orchestrated by the Party.
“Failure to push back [against] social-political degeneration, self-evolution and self-transformation, allowing them to mutate into more subtle and complex forms, could lead to unforeseen consequences,” he stated at a plenum in October 2016. By “unforeseen consequences”, he likely meant the collapse of the Communist Party.
To preserve the Party’s dominance, Trong has purged the Party in line with his ideals, while ensuring the campaign continues after the next Party Congress in 2021. He has also endeavored to carefully promote politicians he thinks will sustain the Party’s reform, though it’s still unclear who will succeed him as the Party’s next general secretary.
Convention dictates that the position is given to one of the top four politicians from the previous term, so either the incumbent Party general secretary, prime minister, state president and chair of the National Assembly.
With Trong unlikely to run again in 2021 (it would tear up the Party’s rule book if he does), it appeared earlier that the now deceased Quang would become the next general secretary.
It is now unclear whether Trong’s assuming the presidency will be a temporary move, or whether the necessary constitutional changes will be made to permanently amalgamate the two posts.
It could be a temporary measure because the Party had few candidates to choose from to succeed Quang if it stuck to protocol, which dictates that the president should be a politician who served on the Politburo before the 2016 Party Congress.
With the exception of the two-term Politburo members who currently hold the top three positions, there are just two candidates: Nguyen Thien Nhan, the Ho Chi Minh City Party chief, and Tong Thi Phong, deputy chair of the National Assembly.
Analysts argue that Phong is a weak politician and her current role is largely ceremonial. This would mean that Nhan is the more attractive of the pair.
Quang was a quintessential apparatchik who molded easily with the consensus-based structure. Nhan, widely regarded as something of a Party “yes-man,” would fit easily into his place.
But it’s possible that Trong doesn’t want to promote Nhan. There are already suggestions that he remains close to former premier Dung, who Trong helped to dismiss from the Party two years ago.
It was reported by some independent journalists that Nhan visited Dung earlier this year, though it wasn’t clear if Nhan’s visit was made on behalf of the Politburo or personal.
An alternative was for the Party to do away with protocol and select as the new President a one-term Politburo member. Speculation of likely candidates included General Ngo Xuan Lich, the minister of national defense, and Tran Quoc Vuong, head of the Central Committee’s Inspectorate and widely-regarded as Trong’s protégé cum enforcer.
It’s possible that due to a lack of suitable candidates, unifying the country’s two top positions is only a temporary measure until the next Party Congress.
But by affording Trong considerable powers over the next two years, there is no guarantee he will adhere to or be made to stick with the Party’s conventions on power-sharing and term limits. The two-term limit on leaders means Trong should step down in 2021.
But with more power in his hands, he may decide to change rules on term limits and run again to be Party general secretary, as well as state president, in 2021, effectively making him the Xi Jinping of Vietnam.