Nguyen Phu Trong’s Dominance in Vietnamese politics: Far-reaching Implications
Nguyen Phu Trong’s dominance in Vietnamese politics bodes well for the country’s fight against corruption. But the advanced age and health of the general secretary would make the search for a successor challenging.
On the eve of 21 January 2023, many Vietnamese marked the start of Tet festivities with usual activities such as eating banh chung (glutinous rice cake), watching the popular Tao Quan (Kitchen Gods) show and enjoying fireworks at midnight. But one thing was unusual: the New Year Greeting was delivered by the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), Nguyen Phu Trong, instead of the head of state, as had been the tradition since 1946 when it was set by Ho Chi Minh.
On the surface, the decision to have Nguyen Phu Trong deliver the New Year Greeting was partly a result of circumstances. Just a week prior to the Lunar New Year, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc was forced to resign, leaving the acting president, Vo Thi Anh Xuan, without the authority (as she is not a Politburo member) and popularity for the task. Moreover, the country had seen a recent unsettling political situation with three key leaders – Vice Prime Ministers Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam along with President Phuc – stepping down in quick succession, the General Secretary seemed to be the logical choice to deliver a message of reassurance to the nation, considering his increasingly prominent role in the country’s political system.
This act, nevertheless, has far-reaching implications. It underscores the overwhelming dominance of the VCP, and Nguyen Phu Trong personally, in Vietnamese politics. The balance of power between the party and the state is now heavily tipped towards the former. The collective leadership system that existed prior to Nguyen Phu Trong’s tenure has been severely weakened over the past seven years due to the anti-corruption campaign led by the general secretary himself. Trong is now even more preeminent than he was during the 13th Party Congress in 2021, when the Party Constitution – which set the two-term limit for the general secretary position – was circumvented to allow his third tenure. At that time, observers believed Trong did not have enough political weight to bring his favoured protégé Tran Quoc Vuong to the top spot, and he was instead a compromise choice. Thus, while the 13th Congress has been regarded by some analysts as Trong’s final victory, it indicated his weakness rather than strength.
Whether such conjecture was correct or not, it now appears to be outdated. The downfall of President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, once seen as a potential successor to Nguyen Phu Trong at the 2026 Party Congress, has eliminated one of the strongest power bases and further consolidated Trong’s central position in Vietnam’s so-called “four-pillar” political system. In terms of both power and authority, the two remaining “pillars” are much less likely to oppose Trong. Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh is facing immense pressure due to his alleged links to an ongoing anti-corruption investigation, while Vuong Dinh Hue, the National Assembly Chairman, is reportedly close to Trong.
In such a context, it is understandable that Vo Van Thuong, the permanent member of the VCP Secretariat, praised Nguyen Phu Trong as a “core leader” (hạt nhân lãnh đạo), using language identical to that used by the Chinese Communist Party to describe President Xi Jinping. While this does not imply that Trong is attempting to create a similar type of one-man leadership or stay in power indefinitely as Xi does, Thuong’s words reflect the prevailing sentiment that Trong’s role is irreplaceable in the current political climate.
Trong’s dominance guarantees that the anti-corruption campaign, his foremost source of legitimacy, will not run out of steam as long as he is in power. During a teleconference with 63 provincial authorities early this year, he stated clearly that “anyone who hesitates to continue the fight [against corruption] should step aside”.
Under Trong’s guidance, the use of party institutions in the campaign has been increasing, leading to a growing strength of the party bureaucracy relative to the state bureaucracy. In 2013, Trong was the main driving force behind the formation of the Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption, which was placed under the management of the Politburo instead of the government. In 2022, the provincial steering committee on anti-corruption, another initiative of Trong, was realised and enforced in all 63 provinces. Led by the provincial party secretaries, these committees are responsible for supervising anti-corruption investigations at the local level and submitting quarterly reports to the Central Steering Committee.
Trong is unlikely to remain in power beyond 2026, when the next party congress is scheduled. If the current “core leadership” structure persists, the question of who will replace Trong remains unresolved.
Trong attributes the decay of political ideology as the main cause of corruption. As a result, during his tenure, he has taken drastic measures to revitalise the VCP’s control over the ideological sphere. Inside the regime, party members are required to study classic texts related to socialism, including Trong’s 800-page monograph, “Some theoretical and practical issues about socialism and the path to socialism in Vietnam”. Outside the regime, the authorities have tightened their control over the news media, social media platforms, and civil society.
While Trong’s dominance should bode well for the fight against corruption, his overwhelming influence, however, brings with it certain risks. First, despite the formal delegation of power, other political leaders now usually wait for the general secretary’s “directing opinion” before making major decisions, ranging from economic policy to personnel issues. This informal centralisation can slow down the decision-making process and increase the risk of making suboptimal choices, while also undermining the traditional party ways of making collective decisions.
Second, Trong’s advanced age and health issues make the future after him uncertain. He will be 80 years old next year and has well-known health issues. Trong is unlikely to remain in power beyond 2026, when the next party congress is scheduled. If the current “core leadership” structure persists, the question of who will replace Trong remains unresolved. Trong’s authority is rooted in his reputation as the cleanest figure in the system, and any potential candidate will likely face difficulties in establishing the same level of authority. This could result in a succession crisis if there is no viable candidate to become the next “core” leader.
It is also possible that the post-Trong era could see a return to the collective leadership arrangement. But existing factions and norms have largely been undermined. This means that the establishment and maintenance of a new balance of power remain uncertain.
Nguyen Khac Giang is Visiting Fellow at the Vietnam Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Research Fellow at the Vietnam Center for Economic and Strategic Studies.