“Red Card” for the President? Vietnam’s Biggest Political Drama in Decades
Vietnam President Nguyen Xuan Phuc might be removed from his position. If online speculation is true, Phuc will become the first Vietnamese president to be ousted while still in office.
On the evening of 13 January 2023, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc was seen present at My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi cheering the Vietnamese national football team in the first leg of the Asean Football Federation Championship final against Thailand. Despite his cheerful appearance, Phuc is facing a critical turnaround in his political career. During a secret meeting on the same day, the Politburo of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) quietly voted to oust him from his position as president.
While no official news has been released about the decision, social media posts from well-informed Facebookers have hinted at the decision. For example, in a post shared on the morning of 14 January, Le Nguyen Huong Tra, who has a track record of leaking credible information about high-level personnel changes in the CPV, used the metaphor of the red card to hint at the Politburo’s decision to remove Phuc. She wrote that “[in a match] with tensions and dramas until the last minutes, the star from Quang Nam FC was given a red card. He is about to be sent off, spelling the end of his career as a professional footballer”. Phuc hails from Quang Nam Province. If proven to be true, the decision will be unprecedented as Phuc will become the first Vietnamese president to be ousted while in office.
It remains unclear what led to this decision. Online rumours indicate that Phuc’s spouse is allegedly involved in the Viet A graft scandal, which by last month had led to the prosecution of 102 persons, including high-ranking officials like former Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long and former Minister of Science and Technology Chu Ngoc Anh. The scandal also led to the dismissal of former Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam on 5 January.
The move is the latest example of the CPV’s intensifying anti-corruption campaign led by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who stated that there is no “no-go zone” in his crusade against corruption. Apart from the Viet A scandal, Trong is overseeing the investigation of several other high-profile graft cases.
The most notable among these is the bribery scandal related to flights repatriating Vietnamese nationals stranded overseas during the Covid-19 pandemic. The scandal has resulted in the prosecution of 40 government officials, senior diplomats and businesspeople. Former Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, who was dismissed on 5 January together with Vu Duc Dam, is so far the most senior official implicated in the scandal, but it is expected that more political bigwigs may be implicated. Last week, Mai Tien Dung, the former head of the government office, received a warning from the CPV Secretariat, suggesting that he may be the next to face legal troubles.
Another ongoing high-profile case is related to Advance International Corporation (AIC) and its chairwoman Nguyen Thi Thanh Nhan, who were accused of bid rigging at a public hospital in Dong Nai Province. Last month, Nhan, who is still on the run, was tried in absentia and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Thirty-five other people, including the former party secretary and chairman of Dong Nai, also received long jail terms. Other bid-rigging cases related to AIC at other projects have yet to be prosecuted or go on trial. More senior officials may therefore face punishment soon.
With the anti-corruption drive resulting in major personnel reshuffles in the Vietnamese government over the past two years, there may be a concern that such changes will lead to political instability, ultimately threatening the CPV regime or constraining Vietnam’s economic performance. However, there is little evidence that it is the case. General Secretary Trong remains firmly in charge, and there is no indication that the personnel changes are causing disunity within the party or engendering instability in the political system.
On the contrary, the purge of corrupt leaders may pave the way for cleaner and more capable leaders to rise, helping the Party fight corruption better and improve its governance. As long as the leadership reshuffles do not lead to radical policy changes, their impact on the economy will also be limited. In fact, amidst all these personnel changes, Vietnam still recorded a GDP growth rate of 8 per cent in 2022, the fastest pace in 25 years.
The move is the latest example of the CPV’s intensifying anti-corruption campaign led by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who stated that there is no “no-go zone” in his crusade against corruption
The key question is, however, who will replace the outgoing leaders, and whether they are cleaner and more capable than their predecessors. In the case of Phuc, a leading candidate may be Minister of Public Security To Lam. Lam seems to have gained Trong’s trust for his loyalty and important role in directing anti-corruption probes. As a second-term Politburo member and head of the powerful Ministry of Public Security, Lam also has a considerable edge over his competitors. Truong Thi Mai, the head of the CPV Central Department of Personnel and Organization, may also be a potential candidate.
However, other senior politicians like National Assembly Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue and Permanent Member of the CPV Secretariat Vo Van Thuong will also gain from Phuc’s departure. They will face less competition at the next party congress in early 2026 when a new national leadership will be elected. They may also seize the opportunity to support a presidential candidate that belongs to or is aligned with their factions. With Phuc’s fall, Hue may emerge as the only viable candidate to replace General Secretary Trong, especially given that Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh — the other potential candidate — may also face trouble due to his alleged close relationship with Nhan, the chairwoman of AIC.
On 13 January, Phuc witnessed the Vietnamese team score a last-minute goal to secure a 2-2 draw with the Thai team, thereby sustaining hope to win the championship in the return match to be held in Bangkok three days later. For Phuc, however, if he had indeed been given a “red card” by the Politburo, the final whistle for his political career might have been blown. Observers of Vietnamese politics will soon learn when he will officially be removed and who will emerge as the ultimate winners from Vietnam’s biggest political drama in decades.
Le Hong Hiep is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.