Communist Party of Vietnam General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong addresses a press conference after the closing ceremony of the CPV's 13th National Congress at the National Convention Center in Hanoi on February 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / Manan Vatsyayana

Vietnam’s political system is expected to undergo a major reshuffle across the board, which includes the party apparatus, the National Assembly and the government, as a result of the 13th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) concluded last month.

The CPV’s five-day meeting between January 25 and February 1 elected a new 200-member Central Committee, which then at its first plenary appointed an 18-member Politburo, and a five-member Secretariat.

As predicted, Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, who is well known both at home and abroad for his anti-corruption campaign dubbed Dot Lo (or furnace firing), and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc were re-elected.

Trong, who has also taken on the state presidency since late 2018 after president Tran Dai Quang’s sudden death, is now in his third term as the party boss, an unprecedented case since the country embarked on the renewal program known as Doi Mori in the late 1980s. 

In the top layer of Vietnam’s power structure are the four key positions dubbed the “four pillars,” namely the CPV secretary general, the state president, the prime minister, and the chairperson of the National Assembly. At the moment, the first two positions are held by Nguyen Phu Trong, the third belongs to Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and the fourth is occupied by Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan.

As a rule of thumb, these “four pillars” must be members of the Politburo, which is the most powerful decision-making body of the party. Since Ngan failed to be re-elected at the 13th Congress, she is expected to step down and transfer the chair of the National Assembly to one of the remaining 17 members of the body excluding Trong. The question is, when will this power transfer take place?

On March 8, in his address to open the CPV Central Committee’s two-day second plenary to discuss among other issues who would take key positions within the country’s state apparatus, Secretary General cum State President Trong said that “at this meeting, the Politburo will seek approval of the Central Committee on the nomination of candidates for the positions of state president, prime minister, and chairperson of the National Assembly. These are the highest positions and titles in our state.”

“In addition, the Central Committee is also requested to give its opinions before the Politburo officially recommends and refers the nominated candidates to the National Assembly to examine, elect or approve to hold other positions.”

A day later, Trong pronounced in his closing address that the Committee had recorded a “highly concentrated vote for the candidates recommended to hold the three positions.” 

Prior to this plenary, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, the sitting chairwoman of the National Assembly, articulated at the meeting of the Standing Committee of this law-making body that the end-term session of the National Assembly (Tenure 14), which is scheduled to begin on March 24, will spend time filling in the gaps in the state apparatus. Apparently, she was referring to the three positions above. Regrettably, Ngan herself created one of those gaps.

Unconfirmed sources thus far have said that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will become the state president; the chairman of the Central Commission for Organizational Affairs (CCOA), Pham Minh Chinh, will be the prime minister; and the secretary of the Hanoi Municipal Party Committee, Vuong Dinh Hue, will be the chairman of the National Assembly.

People who understand Vietnamese political culture would realize that the seat configuration in the presidium of the past two CPV plenaries and photo arrangement in the list of the Politburo implies their power and consolidate the flying sources into truism. Accordingly, sitting next to Trong are Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Pham Minh Chinh, and Vuong Dinh Hue, equivalent to the position of state president, prime minister, and chairman of the National Assembly. 

There are three reasons explaining why Secretary General Trong will not continue holding the presidency. The first relates to his health.

The state president as prescribed in the 2013 constitution is the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. As the head of state, the president is expected to represent the country in foreign-relations activities, including hosting foreign visitors and going abroad for state-level visits or attending important international meetings. However, Trong’s ailing health resulting from a mild stroke in April 2019 has not allowed him to travel overseas.

As commander-in-chief, Trong needs to attend at the minimum and give directions to conferences of the armed forces twice a year. However, this task has been mainly undertaken by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc since Trong’s stroke.

Furthermore, the state president is also the chairman of the Steering Committee for Judicial Reforms, which holds two meetings annually. Nevertheless, Trong has not yet chaired any meeting of the Committee since he took the presidency.

Second, it was Trong who rejected the combination of the position of secretary general and state president, considering his presidency “an unfortunate situation” and a temporary solution following the sudden death of Tran Dai Quang.

Third, the 13th Congress did not amend the party’s statutes, which currently only specify the position of secretary general. In the meantime, the CPV has no plan yet to amend the constitution. As such, there is no justifiable reason for Trong to continue holding the presidency.

The election of Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Pham Minh Chinh, and Vuong Dinh Hue into the positions of state president, prime minister, and chairman of the National Assembly will affect the movement of other positions in the governing apparatus.

In the party branch, there have been already some movements within the hierarchy. Vo Van Thuong, a member of the Politburo, is now the standing member of the Secretariat. The man who replaced him as chairman of the Central Commission for Propagation and Education is Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy director of the Military General Department of Politics. Nghia was promoted to the Secretariat at the 13th Congress.

Another appointment is the new chairman of the Central Commission for Economic Affairs (CCEA), which is now taken by Tran Tuan Anh, who was elected to the Politburo last month and is concurrently the minister of industry and trade. Anh’s predecessor, Nguyen Van Binh, was disciplined last year over his past wrongdoings in his capacity as the governor of the State Bank of Vietnam and was consequently expelled from the Central Committee.

The vice-minister of foreign affairs, Le Hoai Trung, a former ambassador to the United Nations and a career diplomat, was appointed to chair the Central Commission for External Relations.

Since Pham Minh Chinh is promoted to the premiership, his seat as the head of the CCOA is vacant. It is predicted that Truong Thi Mai, the only female member of the 18-member Politburo and currently the chairwoman of the Central Commission for Mass Mobilization (CCMM), will become the chairwoman of the CCOA. 

In the legislative branch, there will be a massive change from the top to the functional committee level within the National Assembly machinery. In addition to the chairwoman, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, four vice-chairpersons of the law-making body were not elected to the new CPV Central Committee.

They are Tong Thi Phong, Uong Chu Luu, Do Ba Ti, and Phung Quoc Hien. That being said, all members of the National Assembly presidium will step down. However, two vice-chairpersons, Do Ba Ti and Phung Quoc Hien, will stay until the national elections in May.

The executive branch is expected to undergo a massive reshuffle too. A series of ministries such as National Defense, Public Security, Foreign Affairs, Industry and Trade, Education and Training, Construction, Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism are slated to witness change at the top level.

Similar to the legislative branch, the upcoming replacement only takes place at the top level, while the ministerial level will happen after the elections in May.

This is not the first time the CPV has changed horses in midstream. In 1997, Le Kha Phieu was elected secretary general in a midterm meeting to replace Do Muoi. But Phieu’s replacement did not cause an effectual change in the system then. This effect was clearer in 2001 after Nong Duc Manh was picked to become the secretary general while being the chairman of the National Assembly.

In 2016, deputy prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc replaced prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, and the vice-chairwoman of the National Assembly, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, took over Nguyen Sinh Hung’s chairmanship after both Dung and Hung were removed from the Central Committee.

The massive reshuffle in Vietnam’s party apparatus, the legislative and executive branches take place as an effect from the result of the CPV’s 13th Congress. This change does not come as a surprise but was predictable and normal business as how it is in Vietnam’s one-party state.

Under the rule of the CPV, as one Vietnamese, who is a China and Vietnam expert, said in anonymity that the change of personnel in midstream like this clearly demonstrates Vietnam is not a rule-based but a party rule-based state. Ordinary citizens might not care about the form of the state, but for them the performance of its machinery matters and justifies for the regime’s legitimacy. 

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.