Then Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh takes part in a meeting with his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto in Hanoi on 16 October, 2020. Pham is now the Permanent Deputy Prime Minister, and is the only Politburo member among the deputy prime ministers. (Photo: Nhac NGUYEN/ AFP)

Then Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh takes part in a meeting with his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto in Hanoi on 16 October, 2020. Pham is now the Permanent Deputy Prime Minister, and is the only Politburo member among the deputy prime ministers. (Photo: Nhac NGUYEN/ AFP)

Vietnam’s State Reshuffles: Subtle Appointments

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The 11th plenary session of Vietnam’s 14th National Assembly has largely re-affirmed the outcomes of the 13th Party Congress. There are, however, subtle appointments that are worthy of note.

Earlier this year, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV) 13th National Congress approved a list of personnel to lead the country for the next five years. In particular, Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected General Secretary for a third consecutive term. In a further step to reshuffle the state apparatus, the 11th plenary session of the 14th National Assembly from 24 March to 8 April elected Pham Minh Chinh as Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc as state President, Vuong Dinh Hue as Chairman of the National Assembly. It approved several deputy prime ministers, ministers and chairs of the national assembly’s committees. True to form, the plenary upheld the Party’s established formula of having the four top positions — the general secretary, prime minister, state president, and chairman of the national assembly — held by separate individuals.

The overall structure of the government has remained unchanged, i.e. the number of deputy prime ministers is kept at four to five, the number of ministries is unchanged at 18, ministerial organisations at  4 and governmental agencies at 11. The structure of the national assembly and the judicial branch also remains intact. The latter will elect a new chief justice and general prosecutor in July 2021 when the 15th National Assembly convenes its 1st plenary session.

Amid the continuities, there are some aspects worth highlighting. One is that there is only one Politburo member among the five deputy prime ministers (DPMs), i.e. Pham Binh Minh who is now the permanent deputy prime minister. Previously, the three DPMs, namely Pham Binh Minh, Truong Hoa Binh and Vuong Dinh Hue, were concurrently Politburo members.

…there is only one Politburo member among the deputy prime ministers, i.e. Pham Binh Minh who has become the Permanent Deputy Prime Minister. Previously, the three deputy prime ministers, namely Pham Binh Minh, Truong Hoa Binh and Vuong Dinh Hue, were concurrently Politburo members.

As Pham Binh Minh oversees diplomacy and foreign economic relations, these two areas may have been accorded higher priorities. However, the new Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, who will report to Pham Binh Minh and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, is only a Central Committee member, not a Politburo member. This is not a new development as Nguyen Dy Nien, who was foreign minister from 2000 to 2006, was a Central Committee member and was not in the Politburo. Likewise, Pham Binh Minh was only a Central Committee member as foreign minister from 2011 to 2016, and was only elevated to the Politburo in 2016. In contrast to the current foreign minister, his two Cabinet colleagues – defence minister and public security minister, have remained as concurrent members of the Politburo. 

Among the newly approved DPMs and ministers, there are some appointments that do not hew to convention. For example, it is interesting to note that DPM Le Van Thanh was Party Chief of Hai Phong City, a departure from the common practice of having ministers promoted to this position. Defence Minister Phan Van Giang is a special case elected to the Politburo although he is older than 60. At 45 years old, Construction Minister Nguyen Thanh Nghi is the youngest minister in the cabinet. In addition, Industry and Trade Minister Nguyen Hong Dien has no experience and knowledge in industry and trade. Incumbent DPM Truong Hoa Binh will stay on until July although he is not a Central Committee member.

Nguyen Thanh Nghi (R), son of Vietnam's former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, chats with delegates prior to the opening of the second annual session of the National Assembly in Hanoi on October 23, 2017. Nguyen, who is now the Construction Minister, is the youngest minister in the Cabinet. (Photo by Hoang Dinh NAM/ AFP)
Nguyen Thanh Nghi (R), son of Vietnam’s former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, chats with delegates prior to the opening of the second annual session of the National Assembly in Hanoi on October 23, 2017. Nguyen, who is now the Construction Minister, is the youngest minister in the Cabinet. (Photo by Hoang Dinh NAM/ AFP)

Furthermore, the general elections scheduled for 23 May will elect the 15th National Assembly; and at the 1st plenary session in July, the new National Assembly will undergo a more comprehensive reshuffle, again re-electing the same individuals as the chairman of the 15th National Assembly, state president, prime minister; and going further to elect a new chief justice, general prosecutor, and state auditor; and approve a new cabinet. The national assembly will also re-elect the heads of the national assembly’s committees, the deputy chairpersons of the national assembly, and the spokesperson of the national assembly. 

Before 2011, the Party’s National Congresses and the general elections of the national assembly did not occur in the same year. This caused transition difficulties for the CPV. Since 2011, the general elections for the national assembly have been held in the same year as the Party Congress. More precisely, there is a gap of a few months between the two key events. This allows the Party to install its personnel to state organs in a more seamless manner. 

Article 4 of Vietnam’s Constitution states that the Party “is the force leading the State and society”. To be effective, the Party needs to quickly install members of the Party’s Central Committee to every leading position in the state apparatus. This time round, the absence of members of the Party’s Central Committee in key positions in the state apparatus lasted for about two months, from early February to early April. This is almost the same time period between the conclusion of the CPV’s 12th National Congress and the 11th plenary session of the 13th National Assembly, where the 2016 state reshuffles occurred. The roughly two-month gap will enable the Party to convene its 2nd Party plenum to appoint relevant personnel to all the positions vacated by those not re-elected at the Party’s National Congress.    

At the next Party’s National Congress five years from now, the Party may immediately fill up all key positions in the state apparatus as soon as the Party Congress concludes. This will enable it to exercise stronger leadership over the state and society. It is also possible that the Law on the Organisation of the National Assembly would be amended so that the general elections for the National Assembly could be held right after the conclusion of the Party Congress, thereby doing away with the two rounds of reshuffles between April and July as is the case now and in 2016. In addition, the Party may consider shortening the 28-month time frame for the preparation of the Party’s National Congress to less than 12 months. The Party apparatus remains as efficient as ever, if not more, in pursuit of Vietnam’s national goals.

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