Security forces drive past a billboard for the Communist Party of Vietnam's (CPV) 13th National Congress outside the National Convention Centre in Hanoi on 26 January, 2021. The CPV’s 13th National Congress, which will conclude on 2 February 2021, could see a break in established traditions of the Party. (Photo: Nhac NGUYEN/ AFP)

Security forces drive past a billboard for the Communist Party of Vietnam's (CPV) 13th National Congress outside the National Convention Centre in Hanoi on 26 January, 2021. The National Congress, which will conclude on 2 February 2021, could see a break in established traditions of the Party. (Photo: Nhac NGUYEN/ AFP)

Vietnam’s Leadership Reshuffles: Breaking from Established Conventions

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Vietnam’s 13th National Congress may turn out to be the most memorable in terms of the number of established conventions that are overturned.

Vietnam’s all-important 13th National Congress is being held to decide the leadership line-up for the country in its next five years of development. Although the Congress will be electing the 200-member Party Central Committee and the 17-member Politburo (expected size at this stage), a great deal of attention is on who will assume the quartet of top positions: general secretary, state president, prime minister and chairperson of the national assembly.

In terms of these four top positions, there are a number of possible developments that could signify a clean break from established conventions. The first possibility is that the current general secretary could stay on for a third term. Since Doi Moi (economic renovation) was launched in 1986, no general secretary has stayed beyond two terms. This convention was adhered to for 35 years. General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh’s term lasted from 1986 to 1991; General Secretary Do Muoi from 1991 to 1997; General Secretary Le Kha Phieu from 1997 to 2001; and General Secretary Nong Duc Manh from 2001 to 2011. Nguyen Phu Trong, currently 77 years old, became general secretary in 2011 and was expected to step down at the 13th National Congress as he is unwell. Also, Article 17 of the 2011 Party’s Statute clearly states that the general secretary will not hold this position beyond two consecutive terms.

A second possible development to look out for is the candidate for prime minister. Based on tradition, the posts of the prime minister and general secretary are held by individuals representing different geographical regions of Vietnam. And more often than not, the prime minister is someone who hails from the South such as Pham Hung (1987-1988), Vo Van Kiet (1991-1997), Phan Van Khai (1997-2006) and Nguyen Tan Dung (2006-2016). An exception was made when Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who is from the Centre of Vietnam, became prime minister in 2016. Even then, Phuc hails from a different geographical region from General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who is from the North.

This time round, there are indications that the next prime minister could be Pham Minh Chinh, current secretary of the Party’s Central Committee and head of the Party’s Organisation Commission. He hails from the North. If he does ascend to the premiership and Nguyen Phu Trong remains as general secretary, this will represent another break from established practice – that is, the general secretary and prime minister will come from the same geographical region.

Although the Congress will be electing the 200-member Party Central Committee and the 17-member Politburo … a great deal of attention is on who will assume the quartet of top positions: general secretary, state president, prime minister and chairperson of the national assembly.

A third possible development is the lack of female representation in the four top positions. Madam Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan made history when she became the first female chairperson of the national assembly in 2016. All previous chairpersons before her were all males. This time round, there are indications that Vuong Dinh Hue, current Secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee, will be the next chairperson of the national assembly. If this happens, the trail blazed by Madam Ngan will turn out to be a one-off.

The current prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is reportedly slated to be the state president. If this happens, and assuming Nguyen Phu Trong stays on as general secretary, Pham Minh Chinh becomes prime minister and Vuong Dinh Hue becomes chairperson of the national assembly, then another departure from an established consensus will occur. There will be no individual from the South in the four top positions.

There was an internal Party Central Committee vote held in early January for the nominees to the four top positions. Tran Quoc Vuong, an early favourite for general secretary, failed to secure enough votes to be shortlisted as a nominee for the position. Other possible candidates also did not secure enough votes and eventually Nguyen Phu Trong became the nominee and the Central Committee endorsed this outcome on a strong vote. It is also understood that Pham Minh Chinh received the highest number of votes as the nominee for prime minister; Nguyen Xuan Phuc secured the highest number of votes as the nominee for state president. Vuong Dinh Hue got the highest number of votes as the nominee for chairperson of the national assembly.

It is further understood that after Tran Quoc Vuong’s failed nomination, the Party Central Committee voted for two Politburo members to stay on beyond the age limit of 65, namely Nguyen Phu Trong and Nguyen Xuan Phuc. From the 10th to the 12th National Congress, only one member of the Politburo older than the age limit was retained for the position of general secretary. If Nguyen Phu Trong and Nguyen Xuan Phuc are to stay on, this will constitute another break from the established consensus.

Whether the above scenarios will come to pass will depend on the official decision to be announced at the end of the 13th National Congress on 2 February. If the quartet of positions are filled according to what we have surmised, it goes to show that Vietnam’s political system can effect clean breaks from party tradition for the long-term interest of the country.

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