As Vietnam’s Communist Party convenes, who will be its next president?

Current General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (centre). Photo: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Vietnam’s next leader will struggle to measure up to the legacy of outgoing President Nguyen Phu Trong, as the current general secretary of the Communist Party has spearheaded unprecedented anti-corruption campaigns.

By Umair Jamal

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is set to convene its 13th National Congress on January 25 to select its next general secretary among other leaders.

Current General Secretary Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong has served as president of Vietnam since 2018 and is expected to step down from his role as head of party as he has completed his two-term limit.

Trong, who has largely used his roles to consolidate state power, would like his successor to continue his “furnace-blazing” anticorruption campaign and further strengthen the country’s central political institutions.

What has General Secretary Trong achieved?

Under Trong’s leadership, Vietnam has seen anti-corruption campaigns make significant gains.

Trong has led crackdowns that resulted in the prosecution and trial of many high-ranking government officials and politicians. Since 2013, anti-corruption agencies in Vietnam have investigated over 11,700 cases of corruption, abuse of power and economic crimes. Criminal convictions were awarded in 88 corruption and economic cases involving more than 800 people, including one serving member of the politburo and several officials from the country’s security agencies.

Vu Quoc Hung, former standing vice chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Inspection Committee, praised Trong’s anti-corruption campaign and said his leadership of the committee over the past eight years was a period of “turning the tide.”

In 2013, Trong brought Vietnam’s top anti-corruption body, previously supervised by the prime minister, under his direct control. Dinh Van Minh, director of the Government Inspectorate’s Legal Department, said that the change in leadership of the Central Steering Committee for Anti-corruption was “the most important factor leading to the recent results.”

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (second right).

Who are the potential successors for Vietnam’s head of state?

While Trong is expected to retire and has struggled with declining health, analysts believe that he may still try to assert power in some role using his influential position within the party’s top cadres.

The party’s leadership has also been unable to narrow the list of candidates to take over the top position. Typically, the party’s Central Committee determines in advance who will assume the top position. Alexander Vuving, a Vietnam expert at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu said that “Usually they [Central Committee members] are able to settle on a party chief about a month before the formal congress. This time it’s uncertain.”

In 2016, for instance, Vietnam’s former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung withdrew from the race for the general secretary position ahead of the National Congress convening, clearing the way for Trong to get elected for the second time

This year, the two leading candidates are Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Tran Quoc Vuong, executive secretary of the Central Committee Secretariat. Vuong is considered Trong’s right-hand man as he has worked with the president on his anti-corruption campaign for nearly 10 years. Vuong appears to be Trong’s favored choice.

Prime Minister Phuc, on the other hand, has led the country’s response to the coronavirus and has an impressive record promoting economic growth and entrepreneurship. He also hails from southern Vietnam rather than the north, which has produced all of the party’s general secretaries. Still, Phuc reportedly has the support of some Central Committee members.

Ngo Xuan Lich (left). Photo: Amber I. Smith; Sgt; USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Two other candidates in the race are Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich and Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, chairwoman of the national assembly. “Mr. Phuc and Ms. Ngan are business-friendly, and that may be related to their ideological background,” said Vuving. “They are not conservative and not ideologues, and they also happen to be from the south.”

Vietnam’s next secretary general and his or her team will have to deal with a host of international and domestic issues. In December, the United States, one of Vietnam’s top trading partners, declared the country a currency manipulator. There are fears of tariffs from the US if Vietnam doesn’t resolve the lingering trade disputes with the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden.

Vietnam’s leadership is also concerned about China’s growing assertiveness in Southeast Asia, particularity the dispute over the South China Sea. Last year, Vietnam had repeated run-ins with China over disputed maritime territory. The growing military and diplomatic threat from China necessitate Vietnamese leadership that can deepen the country’s military and trade relationship with the US. Domestically, the next general secretary will have big shoes to fill as Trong leaves a legacy of spearheading an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15