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"What to Expect from Vietnam’s Consolidated Power Structure?" by Le Hong Hiep

2018/91, 4 October 2018

On 3 October 2018, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) unanimously nominated General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to be the candidate for the state president position that has been left vacant after the recent passing of the late President Tran Dai Quang. The National Assembly will officially elect Mr Trong to the state presidency at its forthcoming session to be opened on 22 October 2018.

The election of Mr Trong to the state presidency will mark the de facto merger of the CPV general secretary and state president positions. The move will be a significant political development for Vietnam as it will create a highly concentrated political power structure unseen in Vietnam since 1960 when the late President Ho Chi Minh gave up his position as the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party, which was then called Worker’s Party of Vietnam.

The nomination of  Mr Trong was rather surprising given his advanced age and the fact that he was reportedly not very enthusiastic about the idea of merging the two positions. His reluctance in considering the matter was said to have delayed the discussion of the topic in the Central Committee and the Politburo for some time. Rumours flying for months in Hanoi also hinted that some other politicians but not Mr Trong would be the likely candidates to replace the late Mr Quang.

On the other hand, the merger of the two positions appears to be a matter of time given that Vietnam is the only communist state that has two different politicians to hold the party head and state president positions. Such a diffused power structure creates a greater level of check and balance among the country’s top leadership, but also caused political deadlocks and reduced the efficiency of the political system in certain cases. This particular power configuration also led to protocol problems for other countries in receiving Mr Trong in official trips as despite being the most powerful politician in Vietnam, Mr Trong is just a party leader rather than a head of state or government.

The Party as well as Mr Trong’s initial concern with the merger of the two positions was the fear that the concentration of power would weaken intra-party democracy and internal check and balance mechanisms. An indication of this concern is that although the CPV has been experimenting with the merger of positions of Party secretary and chairperson of People’s Committee for some time, this experiment has been limited to district and commune levels in Quang Ninh Province only. The limited scope of the experiment so far suggested that even if the scheme might eventually be applied to the central level, it would not happen any time soon.

However, things have moved quickly after the sudden passing of Mr Quang. The power vacuum created a window of opportunity for the Party to reconsider the matter, and with the nomination of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to the state presidency, the merger of the two positions will happen much earlier than most Vietnam observers would have expected.

The merger is unlikely to generate any economic implications for Vietnam and its business environment as the country’s economic policies will remain unchanged. In political terms, however, the concentrated power structure will make the Vietnamese political system more unitary and less pluralistic. While such a power structure may be more efficient under certain circumstances, it will also generate certain risks as the whole political system will now depend on its ability to choose the right leader as well as to check his power.

In the meantime, it remains unclear whether the merger of the two positions will be an ad hoc arrangement that applies to the term of Mr Trong only, or it will be institutionalized to last beyond 2021 after which Mr Trong is expected to retire. Indeed, the CPV has been careful not to portray it as an attempt to modify the existing political system with none of the official media agencies using the term “nhất thể hóa” (merge) in reporting the nomination of Mr Trong to state presidency.

If the merger proves temporary, Vietnam will return to its traditional power configuration of top four positions to be held by four different politicians after the Party’s 13th national congress in 2021. However, if the arrangement is made permanent, the next big question is who will be the successor of Mr Trong. Perhaps the answer to that question will have much greater implications for the political and economic prospects of Vietnam than the nomination of Mr Trong to the state presidency itself.

Dr Le Hong Hiep is Fellow 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.