With Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party’s quinquennial National Congress set to start on January 25, observers and analysts are rightly hesitant to make bold predictions about the authoritarian nation’s future leadership and policy directions.
The 200-member Central Committee usually argues for weeks behind closed doors leading up to a National Congress about who will be on the all-powerful 19-member Politburo and who occupies the communist-run nation’s top four political offices, a decision which the 1,500-odd delegates who gather in Hanoi for the event then rubber-stamp.
Most forecasts were wrong at the last Congress in 2016, where the incumbent Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong outmaneuvered his factional rival, then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, to retain the powerful post. That year politicking lasted until the Congress itself.
That seems to be the case this time as well, with all eyes are on who will replace Trong as Communist Party chief as well as his concurrent role as State President, which he assumed when the incumbent Tran Dai Quang died while in office in 2018.
Trong should have stepped down after two terms in his role and at his advanced age, according to Party rules, and his expected retirement could put the nation’s politics on a new trajectory depending on who emerges on top.
Pundits predict a close-fought race between Trong’s protegee, Tran Quoc Vuong, currently head of the Party’s central office, and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, a technocrat whose popularity spiked in 2020 because of his government’s laudable handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
One speculative scenario has it that Vuong is seen as unpopular and that Trong has put forward Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Ngo Xuan Lich as his favored replacement. But there are matters other than top personnel to be decided.
Only on a few occasions at past National Congresses has an exception been made so that an official above the age of 65, after which Politburo members are expected to retire, is allowed to carry on. Trong, for example, was aged 68 at the last National Congress but he was given a waiver.
However, there are preliminary suggestions that Trong, as head of the Congress’ Personnel Commission, may have pressed so that several age-related exceptions are made this year.
Most of the prominent and experienced current Politburo members are older than 65 – including Vuong (68), Phuc (67), Lich (66), and National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan (67). Analysts suggest that forcing all of them out in one swoop could significantly diminish the Party’s competence.
At the same time, the move may reflect Trong’s fear that his cohort of aged, more conservative and ideological figures in the Party are rapidly diminishing in number, and a new generation of younger cadres who typically lean towards the reformist end of the Party’s spectrum could be ascendant.
Indeed, 43% of new provincial Party chiefs, the main cohort to form the Central Committee, are under 50-years-old, Nguyen Khac Giang, PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington, noted in a media report.
“They represent a generation that has grown up in an era of market reforms, tends to be less ideologically rigid, and is more open to universal values than war-seasoned conservatives,” Giang observed.
“The [Vietnamese Communist Party] might risk going down the path of institutional decay that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union experienced under Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s, when the average age of its Politburo members was over 70.”
Such a waiver, if granted, would also allow Trong to limit the number of retirements from the Politburo. Ensuring continuity of personnel within the Politburo would ensure some continuity in Trong’s policy and campaigns within the Party.
This reflects the main faultline that will play out not just at this year’s National Congress but also over the five years until the next one.
Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, reckons that there is now “a party bloc and a government bloc, headed by Vuong and Phuc, respectively.”
By this, he means there is a split over whether the Party should exert the most authority over policy or the executive government should determine the agenda.
All senior officials within the government are members of the Communist Party, the only party legally allowed in the country which is supposed to decide on policies while the government administers them.
The slogan goes: “The Party leads, the state implements, and the people inspect.”
But two institutional hierarchies of power exist in Vietnam: The Party apparatus and the structure of the executive government, known as the Council of Ministers until the early 1990s.
The exact nature of who makes the political decisions in Vietnam is often complicated by the overlapping purviews of the Party apparatus and the government.
Meanwhile, ministers in recent years have been given far more leeway to make their own independent decisions. More fundamentally, there is a known division over views about governance between “cadres” and “public servants.”
Since 2016, Trong has instigated a major anti-corruption campaign as well as a less-understood “morality” drive. Party membership numbers were cut and new codes were introduced to determine how members should act. Loyalty to ideology and Trong’s more conservative views of political virtue have become paramount to cadres’ political survival.
For Trong, this was necessary to create his “strategic cadre”, a youthful elite within the Party who would continue his legacy.
But something similar also happened within the government, where the ministries have sought to bring through a new generation of young, often foreign-educated and competent civil-servants whose primary focus is on effective governance.
In some ways, these are two sides of the same coin. But they represent very different futures for the country.
Will partisan interests of the Party continue to dictate government policy? Or will the interests of good governance, which includes the interests of the Vietnamese people, international partners and the booming private sector, come to dictate Party policy?
Although never expressed so overtly, there is a concern amongst some Party members led by Trong that a swing towards a technocratic ideal will weaken the Party’s political and social stranglehold.
If political legitimacy becomes solely about having a sound handle on the economy and governing competently, rather than respect or fear of the Party’s overarching position in society, some fear it will weaken the Party’s own grasp on power.
One glaring example is Vietnam’s woeful standards of rule-of-law, which allows the Party to control the courts but impedes economic development and foreign investment – both necessary if the economy is to continue its fast-paced growth. Vietnam is expected to be one of the few nation’s worldwide to register positive economic growth in 2020 at around 2%.
Börje Ljunggren, a former Swedish Ambassador to Vietnam, wrote last year that the Vietnamese Party-state “has managed its unorthodox path to a market economy, but could soon face tough choices,” mainly the challenge of “choosing a more open way forward than China.”
Indeed, Vietnam’s Communist Party has been slower than its Chinese counterpart to bring private sector tycoons into the fold and to install the power of the Party within the private sector, leading to relative freedom for Vietnam’s business leaders yet limiting their influence over government policy.
“Phuc is the obvious rallying point for business barons and others who aim to limit the Party’s sway over economic and social policy,” David Brown, former US diplomat with expertise on Vietnam, wrote last year.
Prime Minister Phuc is neither a liberal nor a democrat, but he does represent the technocratic side of the Party that has gained legitimacy with the populace for its delivery on bread-and-butter issues and especially its handling of the pandemic, to which it has responded to with rare openness and transparency.
Phuc has been the public face of the pandemic response, while Party chief Trong has been rarely seen in public this year, perhaps a result of his ill-health after reportedly suffering a stroke last year.
“As the end of Trong’s term approaches, his power has ebbed along with his health. His stroke has left him wobbly and mumbling,” an influential Vietnamese blogger wrote in October.
Phuc, on the other hand, neatly personifies the technocratic wing of the Communist Party: He was plucked from relative obscurity as a minor provincial official in central Vietnam to become then-prime minister Dung’s cabinet chief of staff in 2006 before moving up to become the minister in charge of intra-government coordination.
Trong and his protegee Vuong, on the other hand, rose almost exclusively through the Party apparatus. Indeed, Vuong has never held a government post, whereas Phuc has never held a major post within the Party apparatus. It’s still anyone’s guess which of the two will emerge on top at the upcoming Congress.