2018/63, 15 May 2018
Health issues seem to have dogged Tran Dai Quang since he became Vietnam’s state president in April 2016, leading to speculation that he would soon be shunted aside. The most recent speculation occurred just before the seventh plenum of the 12th Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) that convened in Hanoi from 7-12 May 2018. Yet, the plenum came and went with no changes made to the post of president.
There are a few reasons why questions continue to swirl around President Quang’s ability to remain at the top echelons of power. The first has to do with his state of health. One oft cited example was President Quang’s disappearance from the public eye for more than a month from 25 July to 28 August last year. At that time, he was conspicuously absent from a number of key events including the founding anniversary of the People’s Public Security of Vietnam in August 2017 which saw the attendance of former presidents Le Duc Anh and Tran Duc Luong. President Quang only re-emerged in late August 2017 when he received a farewell call from the departing Cuban Ambassador Herminio Lopez in Hanoi. A media report cited a Japanese source as saying that President Quang had gone to Japan for medical treatment during his period of absence.
Most recently, during the seventh plenum, VietnamPlus, a sister publication of the official Vietnam News Agency, seemingly gave more prominent photo coverage to other senior leaders such as General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Standing Member of the CPV Secretariat and Head of the Central Committee’s Inspectorate Commission Tran Quoc Vuong. The latter had in March 2018 officially assumed the duties of Dinh The Huynh as executive secretary of the CPV Secretariat that effectively made Vuong the de facto number two in the CPV after General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. Furthermore, it was observed that prior to the seventh plenum, President Quang disappeared from the public eye for about two weeks that further added fuel to speculation about his political prospects.
There are some rumors alleging that President Quang may be implicated in some corruption deals even though he is seen as one of the staunchest supporters of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s anti-corruption drive. However, to date, there is no evidence linking President Quang to any of the purported shady deals.
What then will likely happen to President Quang? In the best case scenario, assuming that his health holds ups, Quang will probably complete his term as president till 2021 when the 13th CPV Congress convenes to find his successor. It has always been the norm for top leaders to serve out their term. The case involving Dinh The Huynh is an example. Last year, when Huynh was receiving treatment for his health issues, Tran Quoc Vuong was assigned as the acting executive secretary of the CPV Secretariat with Huynh still holding on to his formal position as executive secretary. Similarly, if President Quang’s health holds up, and there are indications that his health condition has stabilized, he is likely to stay on as president till the end of his term.
In the event that President Quang’s health does not hold up, it is possible that his duties could be formally taken over by someone else. Again, the same example of Dinh The Huynh could shed some light. In March 2018, due to his deteriorating health, the Politburo, on the basis of the Central Committee’s approval, decided to allow Dinh The Huynh to vacate his post as executive secretary of the CPV Secretariat (in order for him to receive long-term medical treatment) and for Tran Quoc Vuong to formally assume Huynh’s position as executive secretary. Although no longer the executive secretary, Huynh has kept his formal position as Politburo member. Similarly for President Quang, in the event that he needs to relinquish his presidential duties which does not seem likely in the near term, he is likely to retain his Politburo title.
Mr Lye Liang Fook and Dr Ha Hoang Hop are Senior Fellow and Visiting Senior Fellow respectively at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
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