The funeral procession of Vietnam's president Tran Dai Quang drives along a street in Hanoi on September 27, 2018. Vietnam held an emotional memorial for president Tran Dai Quang, who died on September 21 at age 61 after a long illness, in Hanoi before his body was carried through the city with weeping residents and police lining the streets to bid him a final farewell. (Nhac NGUYEN / AFP)

The Sudden Passing of President Tran Dai Quang and Its Implications

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The sudden passing of Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang has created a vacant position without a clear front runner to fill it. Though largely ceremonial, it will have important implications for the country's political system.

The sudden passing of Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang on 21 September 2018 was a shock to many Vietnamese. Although Mr Quang was known to have been ill for some time, he was still seen receiving foreign leaders and engaging in various political and social activities until recently. Official reports, however, revealed that he was found to be infected with a “rare” and “incurable” virus in July 2017, and had since undergone six treatments in Japan.

Mr Quang is the first Vietnamese President to die in office since the passing of the late President Ton Duc Thang in 1980. By the time of his passing, Mr Quang’s presidency last only 2 years and 172 days. As the Vietnamese president position is generally ceremonial in nature and his illness constrained his performance for more than one year, Mr Quang’s legacy has been rather limited. At the same time, Vietnam’s anti-corruption campaign since 2016 has exposed many corruption scandals in the Ministry of Public Security where Mr Quang served as Minister between 2011 and 2016. Although Mr Quang has not been officially held accountable for these scandals, they cast a long shadow on his presidency. Together with his ill health conditions, his possible implication in these scandals has given rise to the speculation that he may be removed from the position in the near future.

It remains unclear who will be nominated by the CPV to take over the position.

Mr Quang’s passing has saved the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) from this potentially difficult and sensitive exercise given that no Vietnamese top leaders have ever been removed from their position while in office. The Party, however, will have to look for a candidate to fill the now vacant position. The decision on this issue is likely to be made at the eighth plenum of the Central Committee of the CPV to be convened next month. The nominated candidate will then be officially appointed by the National Assembly, possibly at its seventh session in May 2019. In the meantime, as stipulated by the 2013 Constitution, Vice President Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh will serve as Acting President until the new president is appointed.
Currently, it remains unclear who will be nominated by the CPV to take over the position. There have been rumours that Mr Nguyen Thien Nhan, currently Party Secretary of Ho Chi Minh City, is a front runner for the position. However, some analysts also point out that Standing Member (Executive Secretary) of the CPV’s Secretariat Tran Quoc Vuong can also be a potential candidate.

While the Vietnamese president position is largely ceremonial, who will be chosen to take over the position this time around may have some important implications for the country’s political system. For example, if Mr Nhan is selected, Vietnam’s current top leadership configuration, which includes four positions (i.e. Party Secretary, State President, Prime Minister, and Chairperson of the National Assembly) to be held by four different politicians, is likely to be maintained. However, in case the Party selects Mr Vuong, who is now also seen as the most likely candidate to replace General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, there’s a possibility that Mr Vuong will hold both positions of State President and Party Secretary after the CPV’s thirteenth national congress in 2021.