Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc waves to the crowd upon arrival to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and related meetings in Clark, Pampanga, northern Philippines November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Vietnam is scheduled to hold two elections in 2021, the 13th Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) election and the 14th national general election in January and May respectively. The nation’s top four leadership positions, informally named the “four pillars,” up for election are the party secretary general, the state president, the prime minister, and the chairperson of the national assembly. In effect, these positions will be decided by the party election. Recent moves show that the CPV has started preparing for senior leadership positions, especially running tests for the “four pillars” in the next five-year term, 2021-2026.

The CPV, an orthodox communist party that stubbornly keeps in its statutes Marxism-Leninism as the foundational ideology and compass of action and has not changed the core power structure over decades, set up the four pillars after the death of Ho Chi Minh, the founding father of the party. Since launching the reforms known as Doi Moi in the late 1980s, the CPV has applied an unwritten canon of appointing three of the four pillars on the basis of geographical regions. This can be branded as the “Four Pillars 1.0” structure, where each position is taken by one Politburo member, consisting of the secretary general from the north, state president from the center, prime minister from the south, and the National Assembly chairperson, who must be neutral.

Nevertheless, this geography-based division-of-power rule has been broken in the last two terms. This change represents the party’s adaptability to the nation’s development demands as well as the impact of a market economy. Additionally, an increasingly empowered National Assembly gives its chairperson an equally powerful voice with the other three pillars.

The most remarkable breakthrough thus far, which was unexpected but seemingly gained consent from the majority of party members, was the consensus reached for letting one man concurrently hold the offices of secretary general and state president, which are two of the four pillars. In August 2018, after the sudden death of president Tran Dai Quang, the party-controlled National Assembly unanimously elected the incumbent secretary general, Nguyen Phu Trong, to be the state president. This change can be branded as the “Four Pillars 2.0” structure, with two positions taken by one Politburo member and the other two by two individual Politburo members. According to the Vietnamese constitution of 2013, two of the most important functions of the state president are playing the role of head of state in external relations and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Since becoming the president, Secretary General Trong’s most outstanding representation in the state’s external relations was his separate meetings with US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un when those two men had their second summit in Hanoi in late February last year. The in March, Trong hosted the state visit of Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, which also marked his last appearance in public in the country’s external relations.

In April, after a mild stroke that caused a decline in his physical health, Trong had to delegate several functions entrusted in him as the party secretary general, head of state, and commander-in-chief to his assistants. Trong reappeared in public one month later, but since then has only occasionally been seen chairing meetings of the Politburo and the Central Committee. This happened at a sensitive time prior to the congress when the CPV was finding a substitute for Trong, who will surely retire from politics in 2021 because of his health conditions, age and term-in-office limits. Implicitly, those who take over the tasks from Trong could become potential candidates for two of the four pillars – party secretary general and state president. It also connotes an impact on identifying whom to elect prime minister and National Assembly chairperson.

According to observers of Vietnamese politics, three candidates have emerged and are contemplated to replace Trong either as the secretary general only or both secretary general and state president. They are Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, and the executive member of the secretariat, Tran Quoc Vuong.

Since April, Prime Minister Phuc has risen as the brightest star in Vietnamese politics not only in his role as head of the government but also in various occasions as head of state and chief of the military and public security forces. He acted on Trong’s behalf in most important external events and dealing with major powers including the US, Russia, China, Japan and India. Phuc also attended conferences of the military and public security and gave directions of action to them.

The economic growth rate of 7.02% for 2019, the highest in Asia, further reinforced Phuc’s credit for leadership. This month, Phuc will represent the CPV in talks with the secretary general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Hanoi. Looking at Phuc’s performance over the past seven months, one can predict that he is being considered to take over both the positions of secretary general and state president.

The second candidate is National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. She has earned high confidence in the party and among members of the law-making body in making this branch of power’s voice heard, not bypassed, by the executive. Under Ngan’s leadership, the assembly has been turned into a more substantial deliberative body rather than a “sleepy and nodding” forum.

However, what she needs to do to take a higher position is to build up her image outside the country. Year-end visits to Russia and Belarus gave her high points when she respectively held talks with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, as well as with her host counterparts. As Ngan is a former member of the cabinet and is currently the National Assembly chairwoman, her increased engagement in external relations seems to intensify the speculation that she is being prepared for the premiership in 2021.

The third potential candidate is the secretariat caretaker Tran Quoc Vuong. Though he was considered Trong’s right-hand man in the anti-corruption campaign, his main responsibility for party affairs and lack of experience in external relations make him less competitive than Phuc and Ngan. After Trong fell ill, Vuong on behalf of the former welcomed courtesy calls by several foreign statesmen including US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. He also attended and gave instructions at conferences on party affairs, personnel issues and preparations for the 13th congress.

Most recently, Vuong attended the conference on party-building work and requested the removal from party committees of those who fell short of political esprit and capability, as well as calling on candidates to set themselves as examples by withdrawing from nominee lists if they thought they were insufficiently qualified. If the CPV reverts to the traditional “Four Pillars 1.0” structure, Vuong could be a good choice for secretary general.

One biggest challenges the three candidates need to overcome is the age limit. In 2021, Phuc and Ngan will be 67, while Vuong is 68. Nevertheless, the CPV always applies the so-called “special case” principle to eclipse age limits for top leadership positions. Trong set himself as an example of a special case when he was elected as the secretary general at the age of 70 in 2016. Moreover, since the CPV has not yet decided whether it will take on the Four Pillars 1.0 or 2.0 structure, the opportunity remains open for those three.

Hence what the three candidates need to do in the lead-up to the party congress is to live healthy and pass the tests in 2020 when the party-state is scheduled to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the CPV (1930-2020), 75th anniversary of the establishment of the country (1945-2020), and 45th anniversary of national reunification (1975-2020), and to take up the rotational chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

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Hai Hong Nguyen

Dr Hai Hong Nguyen is an associate researcher at the Centre for Policy Futures, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Queensland. He has published widely on Vietnamese politics. His first book, Political Dynamics of Grassroots Democracy in Vietnam, was published by Palgrave McMillan in 2016.

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