The Communist Party of Vietnam’s upcoming 13th National Congress will see appointments to the country’s highest political offices. To date, the general secretary and prime minister are selected from two different regions. This a top-down practice that nurtures political groups whose members are connected by their geographical origins. There are indications that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Tran Quoc Vuong, current standing member of the CPV’s Secretariat, are candidates for the position of general secretary. The former is from the Centre (a break from tradition), while the latter is a Northerner.
The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) will hold its all-important 13th National Congress early this year. The 13th plenum of the Party’s Central Committee in October 2020 made further progress in terms of the personnel preparation for the national congress – coming up with the list of candidates for the central committee of the 13th National Congress term. The 14th plenum in December 2020 decided on the list of candidates for the Politburo and Secretariat of the 13th National Congress.
The Politburo further decided to hold the 15th plenum just before the 13th National Congress to deliberate on the list of candidates for the four top national positions (general secretary, prime minister, state president and chairperson of the national assembly). This paper provides an overview of the personnel installation at the national level, with a focus on the geographical dimension of the selection in terms of the practice and criteria used.
GEOGRAPHICAL DIMENSIONS IN PERSONNEL INSTALLATION
The Top National Leadership
At the national leadership level, the CPV first devised the scheme of “collective leadership” at the 7th National Congress in 1991 that comprised the four top positions of the Party’s general secretary, state president, prime minister and chairperson of the national assembly. It was also at this same congress that the Party instituted the rule of geographical origins which stipulated that the positions of the general secretary, state president and prime minister must be held by three separate individuals from different geographical parts of Vietnam, i.e. from the North, Centre and South, and that no two individuals are to have come from the same region.
The rule of geographical origins was relaxed somewhat at the 10th National Congress in 2006 when the CPV decided that only the general secretary and prime minister need to be from different regional parts of Vietnam. General Secretary Nong Duc Manh, who came from the North, secured a second term, and both the President Nguyen Minh Triet and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung hailed from the South. Similarly, during the 11th National Congress term (2011-2016), apart from General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong who came from the North, both President Truong Tan Sang and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung hailed from the South.
At the 12th National Congress in 2016, the principle that only the general secretary and prime minister need to be from different geographical regions of Vietnam was adhered to. So for the 12th National Congress term (2016-2021), General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong came from the North while Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc came from the Centre.
At the upcoming 13th National Congress, one possible scenario is the continuation of the established practice of having the general secretary and prime minister come from different geographical regions of Vietnam. Another increasingly possible scenario, which will be a break from convention if it comes to pass, is for the general secretary and prime minister to come from the same geographical region. In this scenario, Nguyen Phu Trong will stay on as general secretary for a third term despite his age and ill health. A possible candidate for prime minister is existing Politburo member Pham Minh Chinh (concurrently secretary of the CPV Central Committee and head of the Party’s Organisation Commission) who is from the northern province of Thanh Hoa.
Another question that remains to be answered is whether the post of general secretary and president will remain in the hands of a single individual as is the case at present. The CPV could consider to continue to merge the positions of general secretary and state president in the interest of simplicity and for the sake of diplomacy so that on official trips abroad, the general secretary could be accorded the status of a head of state. The practice of having these two positions held by two separate individuals has been applied since 1945, driven by a primary consideration, i.e. to avoid over-concentration of power and the growth of an individual personality cult.
What is clear is that since the 7th National Congress in 1991, there has been a stress on the general secretary being an individual from the North. At the same time, this individual must be “a master in Marxism, Leninism and Ho Chi Minh doctrine”. In the upcoming 13th National Congress, there were earlier indications that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Tran Quoc Vuong, current standing member of the CPV’s Secretariat, were possible candidates for the position of general secretary. The inclusion of Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who comes from the Centre, would seem to indicate a break from the established practice. However, one latest indication as mentioned above is that Nguyen Phu Trong would be the frontrunner for staying on as general secretary.
… the term ‘geographical origins’ is not merely a narrow construct denoting birthplace or ancestral village but also includes how politically active an individual has been in a particular region
Tran Quoc Vuong could be another frontrunner as he has the support of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. Tran Quoc Vuong also has experience in fighting corruption as head of the Central Committee on Control and Scrutiny, a post he held from 2016 to 2018. He is more likely to carry on the anti-corruption fight if he becomes general secretary. Another factor is that Tran Quoc Vuong is a Northerner. As mentioned above, the CPV’s general secretaries generally come from the North. There is some historical context behind this geographical emphasis. In January 1930, the three communist parties in the North, the Centre and the South of Vietnam, then a French colony, merged into a single party with a majority of the leaders coming from the North. Interestingly, some of these leaders came from what we know today as the CPV’s definition of the political North. Even among the CPV rank and file, there is greater representation of members from the North. For instance, among the current 5.4 million party members as of end 2020, more than 60 per cent are from the North.
From the CPV’s perspective, the term ‘geographical origins’ is not merely a narrow construct denoting birthplace or ancestral village but also includes how politically active an individual has been in a particular region. In this regard, General Secretary Le Duan (1960 – 1986) was considered a Southerner even though he was born in Quang Tri, a central province. This was because Le Duan spent a large part of his political career in the South. In the same vein, Nguyen Van Linh who succeeded Le Duan and was general secretary from 1986 to 1991, and who initiated Doi Moi (economic renovation), was considered politically a Southerner although his birthplace was in Hung Yen province in the North.
At the moment, there appears to be a nice geographical balance in the top leadership with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong from the North, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc being from the Centre, and Chairperson of the National Assembly Madame Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan being from the South. Traditionally, since the 7th National Congress, the prime ministers have come from the South, such as Vo Van Kiet (1991-1996), Phan Van Khai (1996-2006), and Nguyen Tan Dung (2006-2016). The primary reason is that since the South has contributed most to the state coffers, it is important to give it due recognition by having the prime minister come from there. But the fundamental reason lies in the CPV’s will to enhance political unity and solidarity throughout the country. However, it is worth noting that the current prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is an exception; he is from the Centre. He became prime minister in 2016 since no member of the Politburo in the 12th National Congress who was from the South satisfied the selection criteria for that position.
The Politburo and the Secretariat
In the current Politburo of the 12th National Congress, we can also discern representation based on the geographical origins of the North, Centre and South. The North has two explicit groups. One comprises Ha Nam, Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh provinces which have contributed five members to the Politburo. This group, especially those from Ha Nam and Nam Dinh, is a closely knitted one. The other consists of Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces which has contributed one member of the Politburo and three members of the Secretariat. They also form a close-knit group. The Centre has contributed one member of the Politburo and one member of the Secretariat. The South has contributed five members of the Politburo and one member of the Secretariat (see Table 1 below).
Table 1: Members of the Politburo of the 12th National Congress Term
|Geographical Regions||Provinces||Politburo (12th National Congress term – list all members)||Status|
|1||North||Nam Dinh||Dinh The Huynh||To Step down|
|2||North||Ha Nam||Ngo Xuan Lich||To Step down|
|3||North||Ninh Binh||Tran Dai Quang||Deceased|
|4||North||Nam Dinh||Pham Binh Minh||To Remain|
|5||North||Nam Dinh||Dinh La Thang||Prosecuted|
|6||North||Son La||Ms. Tong Thi Phong||To Step down|
|7||North||Thai Binh||Tran Quoc Vuong||To be decided|
|8||North||Ha Noi||Nguyen Phu Trong||To be decided|
|9||North||Thai Binh||Hoang Trung Hai||To Step down|
|10||North||Phu Tho||Nguyen Van Binh||To Step down|
|11||North||Thanh Hoa||Pham Minh Chinh||To Remain|
|12||North||Hung Yen||To Lam||To Remain|
|13||North||Nghe An||Vuong Dinh Hue||To Remain|
|14||Centre||Quang Nam||Nguyen Xuan Phuc||To be decided|
|15||South||Ben Tre||Ms. Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan||To be decided|
|16||South||Tra Vinh||Nguyen Thien Nhan||To Step down|
|17||South||Long An||Truong Hoa Binh||To Step down|
|18||South||Quang Binh||Truong Thi Mai||To Remain|
|19||South||Vinh Long||Vo Van Thuong||To Remain|
There are six other members of the Politburo and one other member of the Secretariat from the North but they are not in any group or quasi-group. In the South, the members of the Politburo and Secretariat do not explicitly form any group. In general, the members of the Politburo and Secretariat tend to originate more from the North. In a way, this enables them to have more power to make changes in the Party and government organisations and personnel at various levels.
In the personnel line-up for the upcoming 13th National Congress, all members of the Secretariat of the 12th Congress from Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces will be elevated to the Politburo. The other Northern provinces of Ha Nam, Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh can expect to have three or four members of the Politburo, the Centre can expect two or three and the South three or four.
The rest will be elected from the candidates to the Central Committee of the 13th National Congress. Some Central Committee members will also be elected to become members of the Secretariat.
The current Central Committee of the 12th National Congress has 180 full members and 20 alternate members. Among the full members are at least 23 members from the Northern group of Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces. This group has the biggest number of members in the Central Committee of the 12th National Congress. Except for a few who will step down at the 13th National Congress, most of them will serve in the Central Committee of the 13th National Congress and some of them will be promoted to the Politburo and/or the Secretariat of the 13th National Congress and even the 14th National Congress. The other northern group is made up of those from Ha Nam, Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh provinces, and have at least 18 full members on the Central Committee of the 12th National Congress.
To maintain their presence, both groups must have worked hard in the 10th and the 11th National Congress to be included in the personnel line-up in the current Central Committee, the Politburo and the Secretariat.
At least two members of the Central Committee can recommend or promote one individual as candidate for the Central Committee in the upcoming National Congress.
The usual route is for members of the Central Committee to promote or recommend a number of individuals to form a preliminary list of candidates. Another less common route is for members of the Central Committee from one particular geographical group to recommend or promote an individual who is also in that group in an effort to retain their power and influence. The Central Committee has the so-called central list of recommended individuals; this list is somewhat less affected by the geographical dimension.
SOME HISTORICAL CONTEXT
The source of the present-day groups that can be discerned to be based on geographical origins has some connections to Vietnam’s history. For example, there were two distinct geographical regions that were formed during the feuding war between the Trinh and Nguyen clans (1620 – 1672). In 1802, Nguyen Anh, a young prince, founded the Nguyen dynasty, and in 1834, Minh Mang, a Nguyen emperor, announced the division of Vietnam into three regions: the North, the Centre and the South. From 1887, the French colonialists re-affirmed this division, which lasted until 1945.
Even before the Trinh and Nguyen clans came along, the North was a distinct centre of political power. In particular, the Tran dynasty was founded in Nam Dinh province in 1223. From 1257 to 1288, it defeated the Mongolian Yuan invaders thrice. Over time, and as a result of the victories of the Tran dynasty, the then Nam Dinh prefecture (comprising present-day Hung Yen, Ha Nam, Nam Dinh, and Thai Binh), became a centre of political power in Vietnam. The people in this quasi-group of provinces have nurtured a tradition of being a strong centre of political power until the present day.
Also in the North, Thanh Hoa province had a special contribution to the history of Vietnam: this single province was itself a centre of power that lasted some 300 years, straddling the Le and Nguyen dynasties. The clans of Trinh and Nguyen, mentioned above, both originated from Thanh Hoa; albeit the clan of Nguyen went to the South and later founded the Nguyen dynasty.
After the Second World War, with Vietnam divided into the North and the South by the 1954 Geneva Agreement, many communists shifted from the South to the North to prepare for eventual reunification. Following Vietnam’s reunification in 1975, Party organisations were re-strengthened in the Centre and the South, and soon entrenched themselves there, forming local political support bases for the ruling CPV regime headquartered in the North. In a way, the history of Vietnam from the 17th century to the present day have re-enforced the culture of three distinct geographical regions.
The CPV was founded in January 1930 through the merger of three then-existing communist parties in Vietnam. At that time, the general secretaries of all the three parties were almost all from the North – Bac Ninh, Ha Noi, Hung Yen, Hai Phong, Nam Dinh, Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Ha Tinh provinces. Since the 1930s, all CPV general secretaries have been from the North, except for Le Duan and Nguyen Van Linh who were politically considered as being from the South (see Table 2 below).
Table 2: General Secretaries of the CPV (1930 to present date)
|Geographical Regions||Provinces||General Secretaries||Duration|
|North||Ha Tinh||Tran Phu||1930 – 1931|
|North||Nghe An||Le Hong Phong||1931 – 1936|
|North||Ha Tinh||Ha Huy Tap||1936 – 1938|
|North||Bac Ninh||Nguyen Van Cu||1938 – 1940|
|North||Nam Dinh||Truong Chinh||1940 – 1956|
|North||Nghe An||Ho Chi Minh||1956 – 1960|
|South||Quang Tri||Le Duan||1960 – 1986|
|North||Nam Dinh||Truong Chinh||1986|
|South||Hung Yen||Nguyen Van Linh||1986 – 1991|
|North||Ha Noi||Do Muoi||1991 – 1997|
|North||Thanh Hoa||Le Kha Phieu||1997 – 2001|
|North||Bac Kan||Nong Duc Manh||2001 – 2011|
|North||Ha Noi||Nguyen Phu Trong||2011 – Present|
At the 2nd National Congress in 1951, the Party established a personnel body to oversee the personnel and organisational matters of the Party and the government. However, the choice of members of the Central Committee, the Secretariat and the Politburo was based solely on the will and preference of the top leaders and members of the Politburo. At that time, the top leaders and individual members of the Politburo had a few cadres under their personal tutelage. Without going through any objective assessment of competence, knowledge, experience and morality, a protege could secure a strong endorsement for promotion. More often than not, leaders tended to take care of individuals who were from the same province as themselves.
The propensity for leaders to promote fellow-provincial or fellow-regional men into positions of influence has been a basic motivation for nurturing geographical groups. Groups often create narratives to hail their own achievements and lay claim to leadership roles. They sometimes disguise political infightings as the practicing of democratic centralism. Inside each larger group, there may be smaller groups with links to particular provinces or provincial districts.
Personnel installation is a top-down process: the Central Commission of Personnel and Organisation assists the Central Committee and the Politburo to select cadres from the various regions and provinces, from central apparatus (such as ministries, central commissions of the Party, Fatherland Front, Communist Youth, Women’s Union). The selected cadres are sent to be trained at Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy (the Party’s organ) and National Administrative Academy (the state organ). After training, these cadres are assigned to posts at the Party and state organisations via personnel decisions and through Party congresses.
For instance, Directive No. 35 of 2019 issued by the CPV Politburo aims to maximise the number of provincial party secretaries being from provinces other than the ones they are serving in. To date, about 46 percent of provinces have such party secretaries. Quite a few of these party secretaries are from the political geographical groups of Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Ha Nam, Nam Dinh.
In addition, Directive No. 214 of 2020 issued by the CPV Politburo contain a set of rules for personnel selection based on competence, experience, morality, ethnicity, gender, and health. Although this directive appears to be a step towards more objective criteria for selection of top leaders, it is unclear to what extent these criteria are adhered to in actual practice. More often than not, the unwritten rules of political geographical arrangements are used to temper, even to object to earlier choices made on the basis of such criteria.
A key objective of CPV politics is to promote political solidarity and unity nationwide by having a leadership that is based on some form of equilibrium among the different geographical regions of Vietnam. The South and the North, which have traditionally been more dynamic in either generating wealth or functioning as political centres than the Centre, are more prominent in the top national leadership, and in key institutions such as the Central Committee and the Secretariat.
A key objective of CPV politics is to promote political solidarity and unity nationwide by having a leadership that is based on some form of equilibrium among the different geographical regions of Vietnam.
However, the CPV and the government have made a special effort to ensure that the Centre is represented as well. This was demonstrated when the 12th National Congress reached a consensus to install Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who is from the Centre, to the position of prime minister in 2016. If he is re-elected at the 13th National Congress, he is likely to assume another key role. It is also possible that he may step down. In addition, representation of the Central provinces may be strengthened with one or two more individuals from this region being elevated to the Politburo (see Table 3 below).
Table 3 – First-time Candidates as Members of the Politburo of the 13th National Congress
|Geographical Regions||Provinces||Politburo (13th National Congress term’s candidates)|
|1||North||Phu Tho||Luong Cuong|
|2||North||Ninh Binh||Dinh Tien Dung|
|4||North||Ha Nam||Dao Ngoc Dung|
|5||North||Nghe An||Phan Dinh Trac|
|6||North||Nghe An||Nguyen Xuan Thang|
|7||North||Ha Tinh||Ms. Le Thi Nga|
|8||North||Ha Nam||Ms. Bui Thi Minh Hoai|
|9||North||Ha Tinh||Tran Cam Tu|
|10||North||Ha Tinh||Le Minh Hung|
|11||North||Tuyen Quang||Do Van Chien|
|12||Centre||Quang Ngai||Nguyen Hoa Binh|
|13||Centre||Thua Thien – Hue||Bui Thanh Son|
|14||South||Tay Ninh||Nguyen Van Nen|
|15||South||Hau Giang||Tran Thanh Man|
|16||South||An Giang||Ms. Vo Thi Anh Xuan|
|17||South||Bac Lieu||Le Minh Khai|
|18||South||Tien Giang||Nguyen Trong Nghia|
Current indications are that the incoming general secretary is likely to be someone from the North. This will not come as a surprise as the Northern provinces that include Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Ha Tinh have traditionally been part of the CPV’s definition of the geographical North as well as the political centre.
The line-up of the top leadership remains fluid at the moment. One must wait at least until the 15th plenum of the 12th National Congress is held to learn how many members of the Politburo who are older than 65 will be retained at the 13th National Congress. At the 15th plenum, there is a possibility that the general secretary and prime minister could come from the same geographical region of Vietnam. If this should come to pass, it would represent a break with convention.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2021/1 published on 15 January 2021. The paper and its footnotes can be accessed at this link.
Ha Hoang Hop is Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Lye Liang Fook is an independent observer of regional developments. He was formerly a Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.