The recent appointment of Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong as the state’s new president – the first time an apparatchik has held both positions since the 1960s – has signaled to some his rise as a new dictatorial strongman in a system that has long been ruled by consensus.
But the reasons for his unconventional appointment – and what it says about the current state of Vietnam’s politics – arguably indicates the communist ideologue’s weakness, not strength, amid a campaign to re-impose the Party’s supremacy over political life.
On October 2, the Central Committee’s Eighth Plenum agreed that Trong would be the only candidate allowd to vie for the presidency after the incumbent Tran Dai Quang died due to health issues in September.
On October 23, the National Assembly overwhelmingly agreed to Trong’s appointment, voting 99.8% in favor with only one delegate objecting. “Many heavy tasks and duties are waiting ahead of us,” Trong said at his confirmation hearing, in which he vowed to be “absolutely loyal to the nation, people and the constitution.”
At the same time, his ascent represents a break from the Party’s long-held tradition.
After the death of national founder Ho Chi Minh in the late 1960s, there was a tacit agreement by Party leaders that the government’s top positions, namely the president, prime minister and Party secretary general and National Assembly chair, should be occupied by different people to assure intra-Party balance of power.
Naturally, last week’s decision has led to comparisons between Trong and China’s commanding leader Xi Jinping, who also serves concurrently as general secretary of China’s Communist Party and state president. In China, the two positions were merged in the 1990s.
There have also been assumptions that Trong’s consolidation of power casts him as a strongman in the same mold as, say, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and in line with a rising global trend towards dictatorial leaders.
Trong, of course, was already Vietnam’s most powerful politician before assuming the presidency, although he has long promoted the Communist Party’s concept of consensus decision-making – or “democratic centralism”, in the Party’s vernacular.
Indeed, Trong, 74, is unlikely to take on dictatorial powers or, for that matter, that he will now be above the Party’s decision-making by consensus ethos. Instead, his appointment to the presidency is most likely a temporary move that will be reversed at the next Party Congress in early 2021.
The issue of merging the two political posts has long been pondered by the Communist Party elite but it is thought the majority have never been in favor of it. Trong, in fact, is said to have rejected the idea several years ago because it could lead to unchecked power consolidation, analysts say.
There has been intense speculation as to whether Trong planned this move since it became known last year that former president Quang was seriously ill. Those who disagree with a grand conspiracy narrative say that Trong was only nominated because there were no better options.
Party protocol dictates that one of the top four political positions must be occupied by someone who has served on the Politburo, the Party’s most senior policy-making committee, for more than one-term.
There were only five such Party members that fit this requirement and, of them, one is Trong and two others are Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and chair of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan.
That left Nguyen Thien Nhan, the Ho Chi Minh City Party chief, and Tong Thi Phong, deputy chair of the National Assembly. Neither rank high in the Politburo’s system, nor are they much thought-off by their colleagues, analysts say.
Either of their nominations would have resulted in another major personnel reshuffle, an arduous process for a hierarchy where a myriad of sectional interests, from provincial and ministerial representation to patronage networks, must be carefully balanced.
Moreover, the Politburo is short on numbers after Quang’s death, the sacking of another member last year and another absent for most of the past year due to ill-health.
Who will take these top positions was already a source of intra-Party jostling before the position of president became vacant and doesn’t look likely to be resolved anytime soon.
That said, the Party did break protocol by nominating Trong and, in theory, could have broken protocol by nominating someone who wasn’t a two-term Politburo member.
There was some speculation that fast-riser Tran Quoc Vuong, chairman of the Central Inspection Commission, the main anti-corruption taskforce who took over as executive secretary of the Party’s Secretariat in March, or Minister of Defense Ngo Xuan Lich would get the nod. Why they didn’t is a question that awaits an answer.
One possible explanation is that, as the usual political wrangling over candidates for the next Party Congress in 2021 is just beginning, a new president other than Trong could have been seen as too fast a promotion for an up and comer.
Indeed, a one-term president usually keeps their position, or is appointed to one of the other three main positions, at Party congresses.
Another explanation is that the Central Committee – an influential 180-member body comprised of officials with differing policy ideas, as well as competing patronage networks and sectional alliances – was too divided to decide upon a candidate other than Trong.
Some commentators, including the veteran journalist Pham Chi Dung, argue that with his new powers Trong could alter the Party’s rule to maintain an indefinite “power monopoly.”
Indeed, there is no guarantee Trong won’t change protocol and remove the age and term limits that would ordinarily force him to step down in 2021.
Small wonder, then, that some think Trong has now become the Xi Jinping of Vietnam. But power in the Chinese Communist Party has long been far more centralized than in Vietnam’s communist context.
Moreover, Trong and Xi have very different personalities and, up until now, markedly different leadership styles.
Trong rose through the Party ranks as an ideological theorist. In the 1990s, he became editor-in-chief of the Communist Review (Tạp chí Cộng Sản), the Party’s theoretical mouthpiece, before heading a Central Committee commission on ideology and, later, the Party’s Theoretical Council.
He briefly served as Party chief of Hanoi and chair of the National Assembly, before being appointed Party general secretary in 2011, though his first five-year term in the post was unremarkable.
Whereas Xi is far more of an individualist and activist leader, Trong is considered introverted and passive – the cliché of a grey apparatchik. Moreover, Trong is thought not to have many strong policy ideas, except his belief in rebuilding the Party’s primacy in politics. He is sometimes described by observers as “mono-thematic.”
Indeed, much of what has taken place in Vietnamese politics since 2016 has been about fixing what the current Party elite, including Trong, believe are the errors of former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
Many predicted that Dung would become the Party’s general secretary at the 2016 Party Congress, but instead a coalition formed against him and voted to keep Trong in the position,
From the 2000s onwards, the Party’s rank swelled in number and saw the rise of a new type of official motivated only by personal gain, not ideological or national concerns.
Unease between the rising kleptocratic officials – who some analysts refer to as “rent-seekers” – and traditionalists in the Party swung in favor of the rent-seekers when Dung became premier in 2006.
By 2016, patronage networks and money-politics was thought to have become so entrenched in the Party that it was at risk of collapsing under corruption.
Analyst and former US diplomat David Brown described the Communist Party by 2016 as resembling “an Asian Cosa Nostra” that was “skimming off and sharing out a substantial fraction of Vietnam’s economic growth for private benefit.”
Writing at the beginning of the decade, journalist and author Bill Hayton said money-politics was creating something akin to a “socialist freemasonry,” whereby people only joined the Party for self-advancement.
Moreover, during his two terms as prime minister, Dung significantly changed how politics operated by transferring power away from the Communist Party and to the civilian government, which he headed.
By 2016, some argued that the Party apparatus, including the Politburo, were unable to rein in ministerial staff and other functionaries.
In response, Trong and his allies in the Politburo have orchestrated Vietnam’s most efficacious anti-corruption drive, which has now seen thousands of Party officials and executives of state-owned enterprise (SOEs) punished, arrested or sentenced to prison.
They have also unleashed a campaign to punish Party officials guilty of one of the 27 “manifestations” of immorality, which includes iniquity in socialist ideology, graft, vice and laziness.
Part of this campaign is to create a new core of Party members that are considered purer and more ethical than others, thus separating an elite who are expected to take over in the coming years from the masses.
The presidency will now provide Trong with greater powers to ramp up his anti-corruption campaign. It has already been suggested that graft investigations of military officials have been sluggish compared to other areas. With Trong as president, and therefore commander-in-chief of the armed forces, this might change.
Additionally, Trong will also take over some of the Central Committee’s commissions at which important decisions are made that are headed by the president. This includes the Steering Committee for judicial reform, which could be important for anti-graft purposes.
Veteran Vietnam analyst Carl Thayer argues that the merger of powers under Trong could be effective for governance. The “four-pillars” system has “proven to a certain extent to be an impediment to timely decision-making and swift policy implementation,” Thayer wrote in a briefing published last week.
“By making the two posts concurrent, it is argued, Vietnam will be able to deal more decisively with pressing issues.”
As head of state, Trong will also play a more active role in foreign relations, something that he had to take a backseat on as Party general secretary. There are suggestions by sources in Hanoi that he is lobbying for a visit to the United States to discuss a bilateral agreement with President Donald Trump.
The issue of the South China Sea, in which Vietnam contests territory that is quickly being appropriated by Beijing, may also be a reason for the proposed state visit.
With Trong holding dual powers, the Party will also be able to reaffirm its primacy over all political life, chipping away at the powers former prime minister Dung afforded the civilian government.
“When the General Secretary is also the President, there will be many favorable conditions for exercising the Party leadership over the State and better managing the relationship between the power structures,” said Le Minh Thong, former deputy head of the National Assembly’s legal committee, in a recent interview with Party newspaper Nhan Dan.
Rather than a drift towards “Xi Jinpingism”, Trong’s appointment to the presidency has more to do with the Party re-imposing its Leninist roots and total domination of Vietnamese life and politics.