“Change Awaits Vietnam’s Leadership” by Ha Hoang Hop and Lye Liang Fook

2019/37, 29 April 2019

Vietnam’s Secretary General and President Nguyen Phu Trong did not meet visiting US Senator Patrick Leahy in Hanoi in April 2019 (which he had met on previous occasions) and skipped his participation at the 2019 Belt and Road Forum in Beijing (instead Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc went on his behalf). Trong has been absent from the public eye for more than two weeks. His absence sparked rumours and speculation in Vietnam’s social media about the state of his health after he reportedly suffered a stroke while on a field trip to Kien Giang province in South Vietnam on 14 April 2019. There is still uncertainty about the state of Trong’s well-being despite the foreign ministry attempting to give some form of reassurance on 25 April 2019 by saying that his health was affected by a “heavy workload” and “changeable weather conditions”.

There will be at least six important upcoming events that require Trong’s presence: the funeral for General Le Duc Anh, an ex-President; meetings for the Liberation Day of South Vietnam; May Day, the 10th Plenum of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) in the second week of May; the meetings with voters before the National Assembly’s summer plenary session in May; and, the summer plenary session starting on 20 May. Already, Trong’s absence on two occasions so far provide some indication that he is unwell. Assuming that he suffered a mild stroke, it could take a few weeks to a few months at best for him to fully recover.
Independent of the latest developments, the 13th CPV Congress scheduled to be held in January 2021 will elect a new Secretary General as no one can retain this position for more than two consecutive terms. Trong is currently in his second and last term as Secretary General. In 2017, Trong had signed the 12th CPV Congress’ Central Committee Directive No. 90 that sets out criteria for selecting leaders to various key positions including the Secretary General, Prime Minister, State President, Chairman of National Assembly, member of the Central Committee, member of the Secretariat, member of Politburo, Provincial Party Chief, Head of Party Committee or Commission, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister, Chairman of Fatherland Front, Supreme Justice, Head of Supreme People’s Procuracy. The forthcoming 10th Plenum of the CPV and subsequent plenums will gradually come up with a short list of potential candidates to all the key positions which will eventually translate to actual candidates at the 13th CPV Congress.

This is the first time in the more than eighty-year old history of the CPV that the Central Committee has issued such a comprehensive criteria for the key positions. This is also the first time that there was a criterion on the health of a potential candidate which states that the particular individual ought to be “healthy enough to perform the task”. In this regard, the 13th CPV Congress will be the first congress that will elect leaders to the key positions based on such criteria. On this basis, and on the assumption that all have good enough health at the point of selection, the potential candidates for the position of Secretary General are Nguyen Xuan Phuc (the current Prime Minister), Madame Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan (current Chairwoman of National Assembly), Nguyen Thien Nhan (current Ho Chi Minh City Party Secretary), Hoang Trung Hai (current Hanoi Party Secretary), Tran Quoc Vuong (current Standing Member of Secretariat), Ngo Xuan Lich (current Minister for Defence), To Lam (current Minister for Public Security). There is a possibility that there could be a shorter list of pre-candidates comprising Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Nguyen Thien Nhan, Tran Quoc Vuong and Pham Minh Chinh (current Head of Organization Commission).

The potential candidates for Prime Minister are Vuong Dinh Hue (current Deputy Prime Minister), Vu Duc Dam (current Deputy Prime Minister), Nguyen Van Binh (current member of CPV Central Committee) and Pham Minh Chinh. A shorter list could comprise Vuong Dinh Hue and Pham Minh Chinh.

The potential candidates for President are Madame Truong Thi Mai (current Head of Mass Mobilisation Commission), Nguyen Van Nen (current Secretary of CPV Central Committee) and Tran Quoc Vuong. As for Chairperson of the National Assembly, the potential candidates are Vuong Dinh Hue, Madame Truong Thi Mai and Hoang Trung Hai.

While Directive No. 90 has attempted to foster more intraparty democracy and transparency, there is still some ambiguity surrounding the criteria that may cause difficulties in the process of coming up with the final list of candidates for the 13th CPV Congress. It may be the case that in the last plenums of the current CPV 12th term, the Central Committee would add a few more detailed criteria during the personnel planning deliberations.

In the event that Trong does not return soon to work, as part of its usual practice, the CPV Central Committee could decide on interim changes to avoid a leadership vacuum. It is not entirely impossible for Trong to relinquish the position of President to someone who could be acting president until the National Assembly could elect a new President for the remainder of the term that will end in early 2021.

Dr Ha Hoang Hop and Mr Lye Liang Fook are Visiting Senior Fellow and Senior Fellow respectively at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.