General Secretary Trong’s Political Future: Stayin’ Alive

Mr Nguyen Phu Trong has been general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam for two terms, and party rules stipulate that the incumbent cannot hold the position for longer than that. But there is more than meets the eye.

Composite image of Mr Nguyen Phu Trong, Mr Tran Quoc Vuong, and Mr Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (left) is widely believed to favour Mr Tran Quoc Vuong (centre), the standing member of the CPV’s Secretariat, as his successor because of his more suitable profile. However, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (right) has a stronger support base. (Photo: Vietnam News Agency / Francois Lo Presti / Nhac Nguyen, AFP)
Le Hong Hiep

Le Hong Hiep

22 September 2020

At the 13th national congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) to be held early next year, Mr Nguyen Phu Trong, who is 76 and has been general secretary for two terms, is widely expected to step down due to his advanced age, frail health and term limit. However, the idea that Mr Trong should stay on for some more time after the congress has been floated by certain voters and party officials. Political observers are also starting to discuss this possibility. These developments raise two important questions: Why would Mr Trong ever want to stay on? And what will hinder or facilitate such a scenario?

The frontrunners to replace Mr Trong as CPV general secretary are Mr Tran Quoc Vuong, the 67-year-old standing member of the CPV’s Secretariat, and Mr Nguyen Xuan Phuc, 66, the incumbent prime minister. Both candidates have exceeded the age limit of 65 for re-election into the next Politburo – the membership in which is a key condition for them to win the top position. By tradition, only one candidate will be exempted from the age limit. However, two “special cases” may still be possible if both candidates secure enough support from the party’s Central Committee.

Mr Trong is widely believed to favour Mr Vuong as his successor because of his more suitable profile. Mr Vuong is a veteran party official of northern origin and has experience as the top prosecutor of the country. More importantly, he is perceived to have a cleaner profile due to his more limited patronage network. Mr Vuong is therefore seen to be in a good position to carry on Mr Trong’s most important legacy: the fight against corruption. However, insiders observed that Mr Vuong has not built up enough personal authority and support within the Central Committee to secure the position.

Mr Vuong’s main contender, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, has a stronger support base due to his extensive experience in the executive branch, which has enabled him to build a much broader patronage network. However, Mr Phuc’s broader network of interests may be of concern to Mr Trong, as it may constrain Mr Phuc from effectively pursuing the anti-corruption fight, which Mr Trong regards as vital to the CPV’s survival. Moreover, Mr Phuc’s origin from the central region may also work against him. Over the past three decades, the CPV general secretary position has always been reserved for northern politicians.

If Mr Trong cannot help secure the position for his favoured candidate, he may want to stay on for another term. If he manages to stay on as a “special case”, he will be able to ask both Mr Vuong and Mr Phuc to retire to reset the game, or he can have the less favoured candidate to step down while retaining and grooming the other one to take over his position, possibly half way through his new term. By doing so, he will achieve the twin goals of smoothly installing his favoured candidate and maintaining political stability within the top echelons of the party.

However, two main obstacles will work against this scenario. Article 17 of the party’s constitution stipulates that the general secretary position cannot be held by a person for more than two terms. And special case or not, Mr Trong’s frail health is a major issue. Mr Trong suffered from a stroke in May 2019 and has since been unable to perform his duties effectively. He has been absent from many state and party events, most recently the celebration of the 75th National Day. Of the two factors, the term limit is more critical, as it is almost impossible for Mr Trong to revise the party constitution in time to facilitate his re-election. Doing so will also undermine the party’s norms and damage his reputation.

… succession politics ahead of the CPV’s 13th national congress remains fluid, and final decisions may not be made until early next year. Whether Mr Trong’s calculations will play out remain to be seen.

However, although Mr Trong is serving as CPV general secretary for the second term, he is also the state president, the position he has held for the first time since October 2018. That means Mr Trong may conceivably relinquish the general secretary position but retain his role as president. In so doing, he can still install his favoured candidate as the general secretary and remove the other contender by arguing that only two “special cases” can be allowed.

This is a more plausible scenario, especially if he promises to hand over the president position early to mute criticisms regarding his poor health. Once Mr Trong has secured his position, he can help the new general secretary strengthen his authority while grooming someone who can work in harmony with the new general secretary to take over his presidency.

The above analysis suggests that succession politics ahead of the CPV’s 13th national congress remains fluid, and final decisions may not be made until early next year. Whether Mr Trong’s calculations will play out remain to be seen.

In 2016, facing strong competition from an opposing camp led by former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Mr Trong was expected by many observers to cede his position to his rival. However, he eventually managed to outmanoeuvre Mr Dung to get re-elected and emerge even stronger. This time around, it will be no easier for Mr Trong to get his way. That said, his proven political shrewdness should not be underestimated.

Dr Le Hong Hiep is Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/142

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.