Webinar on “Vietnam’s Elite Politics and Implications for Leadership Transition”

In this webinar, Mr Tran Le Quynh and Dr Nguyen Khac Giang examined the recent developments in Vietnam’s elite politics and their potential implications for the nation’s political and economic trajectory, particularly in light of the recent unexpected resignation of former President Vo Van Thuong. They also explored the role of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, and the impact of factionalism and the ongoing anti-corruption campaign on the upcoming power transition at the 14th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) in early 2026.


Monday, 8 April 2024 — The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar titled “Vietnam’s Elite Politics and Implications for Leadership Transition”, presented by Mr Tran Le Quynh, a Researcher at Amnesty International, and Dr Nguyen Khac Giang, a Visiting Fellow in the Vietnam Studies Programme of ISEAS.

Clockwise from top left: Dr Nguyen Khac Giang, Dr Le Hong Hiep (moderator) and Mr Tran Le Quynh (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

During his presentation, Mr Tran Le Quynh discussed General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s political strategy, which involves utilizing four key tools: the anti-corruption drive, institutionalization of power, management of regional dynamics, and a combination of personal relationships and party regulations. The anti-corruption campaign, known as the “Blazing Furnace,” has been successful in targeting high-level members of the CPV leadership, resulting in the removal of four Politburo members since the 13th National Party Congress in 2021. This success can be attributed to the effective coordination between the Central Internal Affairs Committee (CIAC), the Central Inspection Commission (CIC), and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS).

Trong has also focused on institutionalizing power by implementing regulations that strengthen political control, define election eligibility criteria, curb factionalism, and enforce accountability. Notable among these regulations are Decision 244, which outlines principles, procedures, and criteria for internal party elections, and Instruction 03, which provides comprehensive instructions for implementing the CPV’s election regulations.

Regional representation is another important aspect of Trong’s strategy. Under his leadership, the number of southern leaders in the CPV Politburo has decreased from 40% to 20%. The Central Committee has also shown a similar trend, albeit to a lesser extent. However, this is not an attempt to promote northern dominance, but rather a result of the anti-corruption campaign and new regulations, which allow for the removal of problematic officials regardless of their regional affiliation.

Trong’s fourth tool is a combination of personal connections and party rules. Strong ties between senior and rising leaders reinforce loyalty, ideological alignment, and continuity within the CPV. At the same time, the CPV uses the cadre planning system (quy hoạch cán bộ) to identify and promote potential new leaders. Trong has leveraged both of these processes to advance his agenda and shape current and future political leadership.

Mr Quynh emphasized that these tools are not just for political struggle and control. They aim to promote Trong’s long-term strategic vision of ensuring the party’s stability and survival by combatting corruption and promoting competent politicians. However, the resignation of high-ranking officials, even after their election to top positions, highlights the mixed outcomes of Trong-led reforms and the persistence of informal power structures. The critical question for Trong is how to continue with his policies.

Meanwhile, Dr Nguyen Khac Giang discussed the anti-corruption campaign from 2021 to 2023, analysing its implications for the country’s elite politics. Following the 13th National Congress, there has been a notable increase in the pace of the campaign, with several high-profile cases such as the Viet A and repatriation flight scandals, the Advanced International JSC (AIC) case, and the resignation of Vo Van Thuong. This suggests that the “Blazing Furnace” is not solely a power struggle among political elites, as it has continued at a rapid pace even after the removal of Trong’s rivals during his historic third term. However, it is also not a genuine effort to “clean up the party,” as certain factions seem to be more vulnerable to anti-corruption investigations than others. Dr Giang argues that the campaign is driven by both ideological considerations and realpolitik.

Using a dataset on CIC disciplinary lists from 2021 to 2024, Dr Giang discussed the impact of the anti-corruption campaign on Vietnam’s elite politics. Out of the 518 senior officials who have faced disciplinary action, the majority (57.5%) were from local provincial and district authorities, followed by central government officials (21%), military officials (11%), police officials (2.3%), and central party members (1.9%). It is evident that the MPS and the central party – the main forces behind the “Blazing Furnace” – have largely remained unaffected by the campaign.

Dr Giang also made three key observations regarding the geographical dimension of the anti-corruption campaign. Firstly, economically important provinces/municipalities, such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, have been more vulnerable. Secondly, provinces like Quang Nam, Thanh Hoa, Quang Ninh, and Nam Dinh, which have strong ties to top (fallen) leaders, have faced more scrutiny. Thirdly, officials from provinces like Nghe An, Ha Tinh, and Hung Yen, which have strong central networks, are less likely to face punishment.

Furthermore, Dr Giang suggested that certain top leaders have fallen more swiftly than others. For instance, the Phuc Son Group case was linked to the sudden downfall of Vo Van Thuong. However, the more extensive AIC case, which involved several provinces and ministries, has not resulted in any high-profile dismissals.

The anti-corruption campaign has brought about significant changes in the landscape of Vietnamese elite politics in four ways. Firstly, the “four pillars” of power have been reduced to “three pillars” following the removal of two presidents. Secondly, there has been a substantial decrease in the number of members in the Politburo and Central Committee, with no replacements being elected. Thirdly, key government positions have been filled by strong party loyalists. Finally, the campaign has greatly weakened provincial power.

Dr Giang also highlighted four characteristics of Vietnamese politics since 2021: the expansion of the anti-corruption campaign from the central to local levels and from the state to non-state sectors; the normalization of anti-corruption politics through performance evaluation, routine reports, and the legalization of regulations; the growing power of key institutions (MPS, CIC, and CIAC) alongside increasing risks of fragmentation; and the tightening of the ideo-sphere, with lasting impacts both inside and outside the regime.

During the Q&A session, the two speakers addressed a variety of questions from the audience, including the resignation of Vo Van Thuong and its potential consequences, the future of the anti-corruption campaign, and the state of Vietnamese politics following Trong’s departure. They also discussed the similarities and differences between the political systems of Vietnam and China, as well as public trust in the ongoing anti-corruption efforts.