The incumbent General Secretary of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party won an unprecedented third term in office as the Party’s quinquennial National Congress came to an early close on Sunday due to a new outbreak of the Covid-19 virus.
Not since rule changes in the 1990s restricted senior officials to two consecutive terms in office has a Party chief wielded as much power as Nguyen Phu Trong, 76, who also received a waiver that ordinarily meant senior officials must retire after 65.
Analysts are divided on the future direction of the Communist Party following Trong’s victory, which received widespread support among Party delegates who gathered in Hanoi last week for the National Congress, an event that takes place every five years where 1,600 delegates from across Vietnam vote some 200 members into the Central Committee.
On the one hand, it could imply a marked change of direction by the Communist Party, which for decades has resisted allowing too much power to any one official through tentative checks-and-balances, including limits on age and consecutive terms in office.
Since the 1990s, it has been an accepted rule that the country’s four main political offices – the Party chief, Prime Minister, State President and chair of the National Assembly – are held by four different people. This is referred to as the “four-pillar” system.
But this was broken in 2018 following the death of incumbent State President Tran Dai Quang, when Trong was unanimously elected to replace him, meaning he was both head of the party and head of state.
It is widely expected that the “four-pillar” system will return when a new State President is announced soon.
Not since Le Duan, the Communist figurehead who took over after Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969, has one person held both positions at the same time nor controlled so much as power.
All this, some think, could signify an assumption of power by Trong along the lines of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in which Xi Jinping, the state president and CCP chief, has removed term limits and made himself president for life since he won power in 2012.
On the other hand, the decision to allow Trong to take a third-term as General Secretary was clearly motivated by the lack of other alternatives and could point to the continuation of the status quo.
Throughout 2020, most analysts believed that the front-runners to replace him were incumbent Prime Minister Nguyen Phu Trong, a reformer who has been lauded for his government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and Tran Quoc Vuong, Trong’s protegee and enforcer in his major anti-corruption campaign.
But Phuc has held almost no major position within the central Party apparatus, rising through the government ranks, and Vuong’s relative inexperience and unpopularity as anti-corruption czar was thought to have made him unelectable.
David Brown, an analyst, recently asserted that “when the party’s central committee took a straw vote in October, Vuong’s approval rating was remarkably low.”
Without any stand-in, it is believed that Trong resolved to bend Party rules so he could maintain another spell in office. How this affects Vietnam’s governance waits to be seen.
It is probable that Phuc, who has been lauded for his technocratic style of government since becoming Prime Minister in 2016, will take up the post of State President, the head of state. Although a demotion in terms of the power afforded to the position, it will allow Phuc to employ his experience on the international stage.
Who becomes Prime Minister, the head of the government, will be officially announced in March after National Assembly elections.
Trong, who spent the majority of his career within the claustrophobic confines of the central Party apparatus, for decades editor of the theoretical publication Communist Review, emerged as the leading “survivalist” when he was named General Secretary in 2011.
Trong’s one-track worldview has been to restore the primacy of the Communist Party over all areas of social and economic life. Since economic liberalization in the 1980s, under the doi moi (renovation) reforms of 1986, the Communist Party has lost considerable authority over many areas of Vietnamese life.
The rise of a strong and relatively independent private-sector has greatly diminished the Party’s hold over economic life. The growth of private healthcare and education has ended the Party’s monopoly as a provider of social welfare.
Trong is a rare ideologue, whose commitment to Marxist-Leninism and “Ho Chi Minh Thought” is unwavering. But the ideological foundations of the Communist Party has greatly diminished in recent times, as many Vietnamese have questioned the purpose of a Leninist state over a 21st century society with an impressive free-market.
Vietnam’s economy grew at around 7% annually throughout much of the 2010s and was the only Southeast Asian state to boast positive economic growth in 2020.
The Communist Party has also lost its stranglehold as the embodiment of Vietnamese nationalism, with major protests in 2016 and 2018 accusing the Party of doing the bidding of China, the bete noire of Vietnamese nationalism.
Amid this, the Party has also been thrown into turmoil through the growth of corruption networks in the 2000s, in which loyalty from the provincial members to those in Hanoi were fixed through financial patronage, not ideological conviction.
At the 2016 National Congress, Trong defeated arguably the most powerful politician of the times, then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who was at the apex of the Party’s corruption networks.
After Dung failed in his bid to replace Trong as Party chief, Trong set about orchestrating a far-ranging anti-corruption campaign, which has now brought down major patronage networks as well as ending the careers of Dung’s associates.
At the same time, he has launched a “morality campaign” within the Party, reducing its numbers, making membership harder to obtain, and creating a cohort of “strategic cadres” who are loyal to Trong’s vision of a spartan and ideological core of Party grandees.
The Communist Party has also since 2016 launched far-reaching crackdowns on pro-democracy activists and Party critics in society.
Although Trong’s vision of restoring the Party primacy over all areas of political, social and economic life isn’t fully accepted by all senior officials, many of whom argue that for the country’s economy to continue growing it necessitates more autonomy for economic institutions, it has clearly won praise from most Party members.
In 2018, Trong was named the new State President after a near-unanimous vote, with only himself abstaining. And his victory this week in winning a third term in office signifies that his vision has the support of the majority of Party delegates.
From herein, his anti-corruption campaign is expected to continue, while he will keep on streamlining the Communist Party to redesign it in his own image.
It is also expected that the pace of economic reform will be slowed, as it has been since 2016, in order to ensure that reforms are in-keeping with the Party’s primacy.
Many believe that at some point in the near future Vietnam must accept issues like rule-of-law, private property rights and even greater autonomy for the private sector if its economy is to continue growing as it has been since the early 2010s.
It would seem that the majority of Party apparatchiks regard Trong as the right person to manage this transition.
If a more reformist politician like Phuc taken the helm of the Communist Party, it is possible that this transition would have been conducted much faster and at a far riskier pace for the Party’s hold over politics.
The irony, however, is that in order to ensure the Party’s supremacy, Trong and his associates were forced to dismantle the Party’s own rules and mechanisms to do so.