It’s possible that Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, could keep his top job until 2026, the next time the party meets and chooses its leaders.
By then he would be 81, which would make him the oldest party boss in Vietnam’s history. Le Duan, a three-decade-long party leader, was 79 when he died in office in 1986.
Will Trong make it to 2026? He’s pushed his luck this far. At last year’s National Congress, a quinquennial event, it was expected Trong would step down as he had already served 10 years in office and the party’s rules restrict senior leaders to two five-year terms.
Instead, he won a near-unprecedented third term.
“Over the past week rumors have swept the overseas Vietnamese community hostile to the government in Hanoi that … Trong will step down before his term in office expires and that other leadership changes are going to take place at an important forthcoming party meeting,” says Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales in Australia.
This partly stems from an article published in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, which alleged that the recent issuing of an arrest warrant for a prominent Vietnamese businesswoman was part of an elite power struggle over who would succeed Trong.
It’s not a new topic. The informal plan agreed to last year was for Trong to step down before 2026 if the party finds an agreeable successor, which it wasn’t able to do at the last National Congress, explained Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii.
“The plan was informal and conditional; it remains extremely flexible and adjustable to the circumstances,” he added.
Trong had previously upended convention in September 2018 when he was named state president while also holding the party premiership, making him the first Vietnamese leader since the 1980s to hold two of the country’s four senior leadership posts.
He did so again at last year’s National Congress when he was handed a third term and a pass on his advanced age, then 76 years old. Senior leaders are expected to retire at or soon after 65.
This was because the Communist Party couldn’t reach a consensus over who would succeed him, most analysts believe. Trong’s preferred successor, Tran Quoc Vuong, his right-hand man, proved unpopular and Trong wasn’t enamored with anyone else. And the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic probably convinced many to play it safe with Trong.
Other pundits reckon Trong didn’t want to resign out of a personal desire for power or because he feels his signature anti-corruption campaign – the most effective graft-busting agenda in decades – was still not consolidated enough and could be jeopardized by another leader taking the reins.
On the one hand, there appears little reason why the Communist Party would want to rock the boat. The country is starting to bounce back from the pandemic, although a tough economic path lies ahead. For two years, it has thought about little else than containing Covid-19.
Analysts and observers now expect some introspection about how the party handled the pandemic, which could lead to some recriminations and disciplining of officials. A change of the elite guard would further muddy the waters during this process.
Sources reckon Nguyen Thanh Long, the minister of health, and the chairman of the Hanoi people’s committee, Chu Ngoc Anh, could be soon given the boot over their roles in a procurement scandal for testing kits.
Trong, a committed ideologue who has significantly refashioned party politics during his 11-year reign, still doesn’t think his anti-corruption campaign is secure enough to be passed on to another leader, especially since Vuong, his trusted graft-buster, failed to win support to succeed him last year.
Question marks were previously raised about Trong’s health, another reason why he might have found support for a third term last year, if others sensed he may not have physically been able to complete a full five-year term.
He suffered a stroke while on a visit to the southern province of Kien Giang in April 2019, which affected his ability to travel domestically and internationally. After being re-elected in January 2021, he admitted that he is “old and not in good health,” although this could have been false modesty.
Trong’s health has improved significantly since and he’s now able to visit provinces, noted Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the Vietnam Studies Program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
However, several factors may still point toward a possible early exit for Trong. For starters, Vietnamese politics is regaining some normalcy after the Covid-19 pandemic, and for the Communist Party, normalcy means in-fighting and petty squabbles.
Much more will be known after the fifth plenum of the party’s central committee, which started earlier this week. Competition between would-be successors to the party general secretary usually heats up at regular plenums the year after a National Congress. Trong gave the opening remarks and announced a six-point agenda at the plenum.
Vietnam expert Thayer said item six bore an “intriguing title.” It read: “Regarding the review of the leadership and direction of the Politburo and Secretariat in 2021 in connection with the implementation of the Conclusion of the fourth plenum, 13th Central Committee, on building and rectifying the party and the political system.”
Recent months have also witnessed the sort of activity that often prefigures leadership challenges. Several prominent business magnates have been arrested, including the billionaire Trinh Van Quyet.
An arrest warrant has been issued for prominent businesswoman Nguyen Thi Thanh Nhan, who is rumored to be close to several ministers and is thought to be abroad.
Since most political leaders have their own patronage networks, these arrests “may reflect the tense competition between frontline candidates,” said the professor, Vuving.
Then there is history. Leadership succession is a carefully managed process and typically begins halfway between the National Congresses, which take place every five years. That would be late 2023.
But the run-up to the last Congress was complicated by the death of Tran Dai Quang, the state president, and the prolonged illness suffered by Politburo member Dinh The Huynh. The latter was a contender to replace Trong.
That should have “served as a wake-up call,” said Thayer. “If ill-health suddenly forced Trong to step down, Vietnam would face a difficult choice in finding a successor.”
Indeed, the pickings are slimmer than in previous years. Party statutes require a candidate to have served a full five-year term on the Politburo. At present, only eight members out of 18 members of the elite body qualify, Thayer noted.
Of those, two have been given special exemptions last year to serve beyond the retirement age of 65. They probably won’t get another waiver, so that presumably leaves only six possible contenders.
For Thayer, two likely picks would be either Nguyen Xuan Thang, the standing member of the Secretariat, or Phan Dinh Trac, the deputy chair of the Anti-Corruption Steering Committee.
Hai Hong Nguyen, an honorary research fellow at the Center for Policy Futures, speculated that the successor could be Vuong Dinh Hue, the current National Assembly chair.
That makes sense. Like Trong, Hue is a party man, having served much his entire career within the party apparatus. It’s also a repetition of Trong’s path; he was chairman of the National Assembly before moving up to the party boss in 2011. And, like Trong, Hue has previously served as secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee.
“The race is still a toss-up at this time,” said Vuving, “and it’s possible that the party will surprise outsiders when it chooses Trong’s successor in the next few years.”
Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno