2019/8, 25 January 2019
The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), into the second half of its 12th Congress term, has started to plan a new leadership for its next term from 2021-26. Since the three-day-long Ninth Plenum in early December 2018, the Politburo has held a few meetings to review a shortlist of 205 potential candidates for the 13th Congress Central Committee to obtain an early sensing of which members of the current Politburo could be named as potential forerunners for the top four positions – General Secretary, Chairperson of National Assembly, President and Prime Minister.
In 2021, the General Secretary cum President Nguyen Phu Trong will be 77 years old and it will be extremely difficult for him to stay on for an additional term. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Chairwoman of National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan are also expected to step down and retire in early 2021 as they will have reached the retirement age limit of 67 years. It is most unlikely that these two individuals will be potential candidates for the post of general secretary.
The Preparatory Committee for Personnel for the 13th Congress and the Politburo appears to be preparing for a new set of criteria for the selection of potential candidates for the top four positions. This should allow for a Politburo member to be named as potential candidate for general secretary as opposed to the current practice that a potential candidate has to be chosen from among the top four positions. If so, current Politburo members Tran Quoc Vuong (concurrently permanent member of the Party Central Committee's Secretariat) and Pham Minh Chinh (concurrently Head of the Committee's Organization Commission) could be potential frontrunners to become general secretary. Vuong Dinh Hue, currently deputy prime minister and Politburo member, could be a potential candidate for prime minister.
The Politburo currently has three vacancies as a result of a dismissal (Dinh La Thang), a death (Tran Dai Quang), and a permanent sick leave (Dinh The Huynh). To date, there is no plan to elect new members to fill the vacancies. If the Central Committee continues not to fill up these three posts, further planning for the top leadership posts could be less complicated. The Central Committee will want to be seen as observing the age limit in the selection of the top leadership. However, it is also possible that the exception to this criteria may continue to apply only to the candidate chosen for general secretary.
Since the Sixth Congress in 1986, the CPV has been making efforts to put in place more consistent and strict criteria for planning and choosing new leadership at all levels. However, over the years, corruption, wastefulness, mismanagement, and various interest groups in Vietnam have become stronger. This means that there are problems in the design and practice of cadre planning and selection as well as preparation for congresses. Among the 4.5 million strong members of the CPV, there will not be a lack of talented cadres who can help to maintain the monopoly on power of the ruling party at all levels. To some extent, the criterion on age limit hinders those who are capable but have exceeded the age limit to continue to lead and contribute to the Party’s cause. From inside, the Party sees interest groups as the most problematic issue to tackle. Hence, the current planning for new leadership is intended to help minimize the influence of interest groups, although the less democratic and less transparent criteria and practice could bring those who are trusted but less capable individuals to power.
It is unusual to have the names of potential candidates announced informally two years before the 13th Congress. But it is too early to tell which candidate would assume the top leadership posts and whether the positions of general secretary and president would remain in the hands of one man. It may be the case that the public would come to know the real candidates for the top positions and the Politburo only one or a few days just before the next congress.
Dr Ha Hoang Hop is Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute while Mr Lye Liang Fook is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at the same institute.
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