Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, shown here in April 2021, is to visit Singapore this week. Photo: AFP / Vietnam News Agency

The ruling communist parties of Vietnam and Laos have formally named their new leadership teams after five-year reshuffles, and the new lineups appear very peculiar.

Politicians whose experience should have made them ideal candidates for certain roles were installed in positions ill-suited to their skills. Round pegs have been placed in square holes. 

On Monday, Vietnam’s National Assembly formally voted in Pham Minh Chinh, a former state security leader, as the country’s new prime minister, despite him having almost no experience of economic policy or government administration.  

Vuong Dinh Hue, an experienced technocrat, a leading economic planner and a politician who many analysts predicted would become prime minister, was instead named the new chair of the National Assembly, a role without any great influence over government policy. 

Chinh has spent most of his career in the Ministry of Public Security, rising to deputy minister. He was then moved into the Communist Party apparatus, becoming head of its Central Organization Commission, a powerful role in charge of personnel decisions over party officials. 

While Chinh’s years spent in the Ministry of Public Security technically meant he was a member of the government bureaucracy, more than other ministries it closely follows instructions from the party apparatus.

Chinh is also one of the only Vietnamese prime ministers in recent times not to have previously served as a deputy prime minister, usually a prerequisite for the role. 

Throughout much of 2020, most analysts predicted that the then-prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, a leading technocrat and arguably one of Vietnam’s most popular politicians for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, was almost certain to be promoted to head the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). 

Instead, Phuc was on Monday named the new state president, a largely ceremonial role in domestic politics. And the incumbent party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, won a nearly unprecedented third term in office in January, a decision that went against the VCP’s own informal limit on two terms in office. Aged 76, he also had to receive a waiver since senior leaders are expected to retire after 65. 

With one minor expectation, no party chief has served more than a decade in office since Le Duan, the wartime leader, and informal rules introduced in the 1990s were aimed at preventing a dictatorial accumulation of power by one politician. 

Something counter-intuitive also took place in Laos as its communist party, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), also recently engaged in a leadership reshuffle that takes place every five years.  

The incumbent prime minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, arguably the most respected technocrat in recent history, was named the new party chief at its congress in January. But he has spent his entire career in the government apparatus, having previously held no senior role in the party bureaucracy. 

Phankham Viphavanh is the new head man in Laos. Photo: AFP/Masamine Kawaguchi /The Yomiuri Shimbun

Laos makes a similar move

Laos’ new prime minister, Phankham Viphavanh, much like Chinh, has very little experience in the government apparatus. He previously only served as Minister of Education and Sports, a relatively minor role in the cabinet.

He was then moved into the party apparatus to become a standing secretariat member, a role also involved with personnel management. 

Phankham also only served briefly as a deputy prime minister between 2014 and 2016, compared with the decade Thongloun spent in this role before he became prime minister in 2016.  

On the surface, it appears particularly odd that both communist parties chose not to match personnel to political offices that suit their experience, as they have typically done at previous reshuffles. 

In Laos’ case, the explanation is a little more straightforward. Almost never do Lao prime ministers serve more than one term in office, so moving Thongloun to party chief meant it kept its most able and popular politician. And although Phankham has considerably less experience than Thongloun had when he became prime minister in 2016, Thongloun is arguably an exceptional case, groomed for decades for the role.  

For Vietnam, however, the possible explanation is more opaque. Given that the VCP decided to rip up much of its rulebook by allowing Trong a third term as Party chief and giving him an age waiver, it could have easily stuck to the status quo and given Phuc a second term as prime minister.

That scenario would have ensured the party apparatus remained in the hands of Trong, an arch traditionalist who for years has fought to restore ideology and “socialist morality” to the fore, and the government apparatus remained in the trusted hands of Phuc, arguably the most able bureaucrat. 

Motorists wait at a traffic light during rush hour in Ho Chi Minh City on September 8, 2020. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen

The will of the Party

It is well-known that Trong’s preferred successor, his right-hand man Tran Quoc Vuong, was vetoed by the rest of the Party ahead of January’s Congress – and Vuong wasn’t even re-elected onto the Politburo at the event. That meant Trong needed to claim a third term in order to maintain the power of his factional base. 

But by handing the government apparatus over to Chinh, the communist grandees clearly decided to impose the will of the Party over the government bureaucracy.  

Analyst Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has popularized the idea of the VCP being split between its “Party Wing” and its “Government Wing.”

Describing the intense debates within the Communist Party last year over the leadership reshuffle, Thayer wrote in February: “The Party wing stressed the importance of ideology in legitimizing one-party rule and constantly warned of the plot of peaceful evolution by opposition and foreign forces that sought to change Vietnam’s socialist regime.”

By comparison, “the government wing favored integrating Vietnam with the global economy as a means of legitimizing Vietnam’s one-party state,” he added. 

Both Vietnam and Laos are one-party states, where all politicians have to belong to the respective communist parties and almost every senior official has to show fealty to the parties’ socialist credentials. However, major differences of opinion arise over the VCP’s role in decision-making, which is partly reflected by the background of the politician.

Up until the 2000s, at least, it was relatively easy for the Communist Party to determine the policies that the government apparatus was expected to enact. As Hanoi’s old slogan states: “The Party leads, the state implements, and the people inspect.”

A division of opinion

However, as Vietnam’s economy and society became increasingly complex, thanks in large part to major economic progress in the early 2010s, the VCP had to turn over greater autonomy to the government apparatus, meaning ministers often took decisions without instruction from the Communist Party.

This, naturally, created a division of opinion, which wasn’t helped by the overlapping agencies of the party and government bureaucracies. Both have their own committees that debate all manner of policy, and do not always come to the same conclusions. 

It also meant that the government had to start filling its bureaucracy with experts and technocrats who could manage an increasingly complex system, but who did not necessarily have any real affinity to the Communist Party and its one-party, authoritarian rule. 

Vietnam’s newly elected Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong after the closing ceremony of the Communist Party of Vietnam 13th National Congress at the National Convention Centre in Hanoi on February 1, 2021. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

For traditionalists like Trong, whose primary concern is the continued political domination of the VCP, the rise of technocrats poses a major problem; policies that may be necessary for economic or social progress aren’t necessarily in the Party’s interest.  

For instance, a number of analysts argue that in order to maintain high economic growth rates, Hanoi must now accept genuine rule of law and private property rights. However, such reforms would mean the VCP must give up its domination of the courts and the legal process, greatly weakening its control over society. 

The central political schism now in Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, in Laos, is between how certain policies affect the state and how they affect the communist parties’ political monopoly. 

The inherent contradiction in all of this, however, is that both communist parties know that their legitimacy depends on maintaining high economic growth rates, which allows ordinary people to grow a little richer each year. Yet, in order to maintain high growth, their communist parties have to provide greater autonomy to the private sector and the state apparatus, thereby weakening their own positions.  

Wings and factions

It would appear, at least in Vietnam’s case, that the party wing of the VCP has decided that this process would be safer if overseen by personnel from the party wing itself. If left in the hands of the government wing, these transitions may be carried out too quickly or too forcefully.

That may explain why Phuc, the obvious leader of the government wing, was dispatched to the ceremonial post of state president. And his protegee, Hue, one of the architects of Vietnam’s recent economic policy, was named chair of the National Assembly, the weakest of the four top political offices.  

Chinh, who has his foot more in the party wing than the government wing, was the only prime ministerial candidate put forward by the VCP, naturally winning the National Assembly’s rubber-stamp vote on Monday. 

It may explain why the government wing also saw its representation on the VCP’s Politburo, its elite decision-making body, limited at January’s National Congress.

Zachary Abuza, an expert on Vietnamese politics, has noted that 13 of the 18 Politburo members elected in January represent distinctly Party interests, whereas it was only eight of the 19 in the last Politburo, elected in early 2016. 

Laos’ Former Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. Photo: AFP/Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency)

In Vientiane, the distinctions between the party wing and government wing aren’t so obvious or fractious. Laos doesn’t have to worry about how it is seen by the democratic West, as its foreign relations barely extend beyond China, Vietnam and Thailand. 

Hanoi, however, which is increasingly moving closer to the West, especially in regards to its disputes with Beijing over territory in the South China Sea, is now under pressure to modify its domestic politics to appease its new allies. 

Moreover, the Vietnamese economy is far more advanced and complex than Laos’, meaning Vientiane is not yet gripped by the question of how much autonomy it needs to provide to the private sector and international investors. 

That said, the leadership reshuffle in Laos points towards the ascendancy of the government wing of the LPRP. Thongloun, the arch technocrat, was not only appointed party chief but also state president, an expected move since these posts are usually merged, dissimilar to Vietnam’s separation of powers. 

Phankham, the prime minister, has feet in both camps but is thought to have been a compromise candidate – and it is widely expected that Thongloun will still dictate government policy from his new post as party chief. 

In that regard, it appears that the government wing of Laos’ communist party gained ascendancy this year, whereas the party wing of the Vietnamese Communist Party is now dominant.