The absence of Vietnam’s communist chief and head of state from a major national event last week yet again sparked rumors about how the purported ill-health of the country’s most powerful figure affects an all-important political reshuffle set for early next year.
Nguyen Phu Trong reportedly failed to attend Communist Party celebrations for the 75th anniversary of National Day on September 2, an annual event with much fanfare that marks Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence from colonial rule in 1945.
Local media reported that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc presided over the event this year, whereas it is traditionally overseen either by the State President, the head of state, or the Party’s General Secretary. Trong now holds both top positions.
Trong’s absence might have been yet another instance of his ill-health affecting his and the Party’s activity. He is thought to have suffered a mild stroke in April 2019 and missed other important Party meetings afterward.
Perhaps aware that the rumor mill was spinning, state-run media days later pointed out that Trong had led a group of apparatchiks to light incense at the Ho Chi Minh Monument at the Presidential Palace on September 1, the day before the national event, and played down health fears.
The health status of senior Party officials was designated as an official state secret last year, in a move thought to have been spearheaded by Trong.
All this matters as Communist Party members from top to bottom gear up for a grueling, months-long period of intense politicking ahead of a 13th National Congress in January, a quinquennial event at which the Party’s Central Committee and most senior officials are reshuffled.
A key Central Committee plenum will be held in October at which officials will gauge levels of intra-Party support for theirs and their allies’ candidacies for various positions.
Local district and provincial-level Party branches have already started meeting to discuss which delegates they will send to the National Congress in January. Those selected will vote in a new 180-strong Central Committee.
At the same time, central-level apparatchiks are busy at work on policy documents within focus groups that will set out the Party’s record over the past five years for publication in January.
Now 76, Trong has pushed through new regulations to lift traditional age restrictions for senior Party officials of 65, though this may have more to do with the advanced age of most of his Politburo colleagues.
It’s highly unlikely that Trong could get a third term as head of the Party, since rules limit senior officials to two terms. However, it is possible that Trong will try to remain as State President for another five-year term.
“These are basically groundless [health] rumors and might not have any impact on the [Party’s] selection process,” says Nguyen Khac Giang, a senior research fellow at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research, Vietnam National University, and a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington.
“His health issue is already known, but I think he’ll continue to exert great influence over the personnel matters before the next Congress.”
Trong, now arguably the most powerful Vietnamese politician of the past three decades, wants to secure one of his protegees as his Party chief replacement. Tran Quoc Vuong, the Central Committee Secretariat’s executive secretary and Trong’s right-hand man, is thought to be his preferred successor.
Vuong, a northern like Trong, would also provide stability as the Party bids to balance representation based on geography and ministerial affiliation.
Of the three front-runners for the Party chief post next year, Phuc is now 65, while Vuong is 67 and Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, the incumbent chairwoman of the National Assembly, is 66. The key question, though, is whether the positions of Party chief and state president will remain merged after 2021, as it is in communist-run China and Laos.
Vietnam could instead return to the so-called “four pillar” structure where the four most powerful national positions are split between four individuals, a way of maintaining consensus-based rule within the Party that was informally accepted in the early 1990s.
That tradition was broken in late 2018 when Trong was unanimously voted in as the new state president following the untimely death of his predecessor and sometimes rival, Tran Dai Quang.
It is still a matter of dispute as to whether this was a pragmatic or power-grabbing response.
Appointing anyone other than Trong as state president would have required a reshuffle in the Politburo midway between National Congresses, potentially upsetting the Party’s carefully calibrated balance of interests.
Yet some observers assert that Trong intentionally vied for the position to harness more power for himself and his clique.
There is no suggestion yet that the January proceedings will be postponed because of the pandemic. Trong’s absences from official engagements do not necessarily indicate that his purported ill-health is taking a toll on his Party activities.
Indeed, Trong has tended to avoid the limelight throughout his nine years in power and has rarely been seen since January, as the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic have been fronted by Prime Minister Phuc, the head of government, and his cabinet ministers.
Phuc, thought to be a front-runner to take the party chief post in January, has greatly improved his reputation and stature by Vietnam’s mostly lauded handling of Covid-19.
There were no recorded Covid-related deaths until late July, when, following a relaxation of confinement restrictions, an outbreak in Da Nang led to a deadly wave that has now caused 35 confirmed deaths.
Opinions are split, however, as to whether Vietnam’s comparatively successful handling of the crisis works more in Trong or Phuc’s favor.
It has certainly improved the public reputation of the Party’s technocratic wing, headed by those like Phuc who are focused more on improving the Party’s administrative capabilities and working towards objective goals.
Trong’s theoretical wing is more focused on reasserting the Party’s ideological and moral foundations. That has been witnessed in an intra-Party purge aimed nominally at rooting out corrupt officials that has strengthened Trong and his allies’ grip at other camps’ expense.
Although authorities have continued with their vast crackdown on dissent throughout the pandemic crisis, the government has been unusually open and transparent over the past nine months, some analysts note.
On the other hand, because most officials in Phuc’s technocratic camp of the Party have been so consumed by handling pandemic responses, it has given Trong and his associates more time to focus on internal politics.
Trong now heads the sub-committee in charge of compiling documents for the National Congress, a position which will allow him to steer the direction of the “resolution” debated at the event, which sets out Party policy for the 2020-2025 period.
“They should present the enthusiasm, wisdom and belief, the ‘will of the Party, the heart of the People’ blending with the wishes, aspirations and will of reaching a radiant future of the country and the entire nation,” Trong wrote in early September, referring to the Party officials tasked with writing the reports.
In a recently penned op-ed published in state-run media, Trong laid out his thoughts on what has gone well over the past four years since the last Party Congress and what needs to be changed moving ahead.
First and foremost on his list is restructuring the Party into a lean, ideologically-pure hierarchy, his long-time pet project.
Throughout his nearly decade-long tenure, Trong has argued that the Party grew too large in the 2000s and brought in many wayward members who corrupted its ideological and moral purpose.
“The Party building and rectification must be implemented comprehensively, synchronously and regularly in terms of ideology, politics, morality, organization and staff,” local media paraphrased Trong’s argument.
Despite the pandemic, Trong’s anti-graft campaign hasn’t slowed in 2020. It took arguably one of its biggest scalps yet last month when Nguyen Duc Chung, then chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee, was arrested for allegedly appropriating state secrets in relation to his links with Hanoi tech giant Nhat Cuong Technical Services Trading.
The pandemic has thus arguably been a mixed bag for Trong.
While the Party’s deft handling of the disease has strengthened rival sections of the Party, Trong’s absence from front-line politics has allowed him to focus more on all-important Party bureaucracy and politicking, significantly ahead of an intense period of horse-trading and scheming that is just now beginning.