Notes on Vietnam’s tense leadership succession

In Vietnam, a pressure-packed political succession is entering its final stages, its outcomes still unknown. At stake is leadership over the Communist Party and its stamp on Vietnam’s development over the next five years and beyond. With its expanding economy still compromised by institutional weaknesses and its foreign policies congealing amid escalating regional tensions, Vietnam’s leadership succession carries wide implications not only for Vietnam’s development but for that of the broader regional order.

Still, while it is worth knowing what’s going on and whom the principal contestants for power are, the most important questions arising from the leadership succession are questions about the direction of Vietnam’s politics itself. To see why requires us to view struggles playing out at the commanding heights in relation to developments taking place within the broader elite and within and outside the party-state.

At the core of the leadership struggle are tensions surrounding the determination of the Party’s leadership for the upcoming 12th Party Congress, which will sit until 2021 and which is scheduled to get underway on the 21st of this month. The leadership roster, expected to be finalized next week, will determine who will serve as Party General Secretary, Prime Minister, State President, and National Assembly President, among other key positions. Thus, the most obvious answer to the question of ‘what is going on’ in Vietnam is a struggle for leadership over and influence within the Communist Party.

The most compelling sub-plot in this competition is the contest between current Party General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, and the current Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung. The Prime Minister’s pursuit of the Party Secretary position draws support from the power base he has cultivated among elites across various sectors over the course of his two terms in office. Yet the Prime Minister is a controversial figure.

To his supporters, the Prime Minister is Vietnam’s most proficient statesman, a true reform champion, and patriot ready to end Vietnam’s subservience to China. Indeed, the Prime Minister projects a commitment to market liberalizing reforms and a willingness to expand freedoms ‘in accordance with the law.’

Yet critics allege the Prime Minister is most committed to expanding the wealth and influence of his family and supporters and well placed foreign investors. They hold him responsible for large-scale bankruptcies and profligate lending that have left Vietnam with an onerous public debt. Reformers cast the Prime Minister as a dangerous fake with a penchant for talking about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ and for silencing critics through draconian means. Conservatives mistrust him for his alleged association with ill-gotten wealth, his call for a fresh approach to relations with China and his willingness to seek economic advice from the likes of Tony Blair. And yet despite all this mistrust, the Prime Minister retains a certain and in respects enigmatic appeal.

Crucially, however, party conservatives and in particular the Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong retain control over key levers of procedural power and are using these block the Prime Minister’s path to power. How might this occur? Though ineligible for another full term, there is precedent for the Party Secretary to install himself for another two years, during which time he may use his control over the means of Party discipline and ideology to buttress his support base and groom the viable successor he currently lacks. Not known for his intellectual dynamism, the Party Secretary and his supporters’ grit and determination have caught many off guard. This is perhaps best illustrated by the Party Secretary’s ‘under-the-radar’ success in cajoling several hundred central committee members to accept a decision authored by himself forbidding current or future committees from nominating or voting persons for leadership positions who are not on the official list endorsed by the general secretary himself. Still, outside his narrow support base, enthusiasm for two more years of his stewardship is modest at best.

The politics of Vietnam’s leadership succession, however, is not limited to a competition between Mssrs Dung and Trong and nor is it limited to the world of elite politics. While many members of Vietnam elite have benefited from patron-client politics, years of political stalemate under the Nguyen Phu Tong – Nguyen Tan Dung rivalry has taken its toll, leading increasing ranks of heretofore-passive observers to the view that interest group politics of the sort Vietnam has developed have undermined the coherence and effectiveness of state policy. There is indeed a chance that Vietnam will say goodbye to both Mr. Dung and Mr. Trong. This could happen as a result of an unhappy compromise between the two camps.

A far less likely scenario would be an override of the current party secretary’s ban on nominations by the party’s internal and (in principle) autonomous inspectorate. Such an outcome would amount to a procedural coup, effectively commanding the central committee to openly nominate and elect state leaders. If one or both the Prime Minister or Party Secretary exit, the main question is whether inheritors of the remaining top positions will be mere acolytes of established interest-based camps or more independently minded leaders drawn from the politburo or, intriguingly, the military.

For the 99.9 percent standing outside the theater of elite politics, the struggle for Vietnam’s future has generated intense interest, albeit interest pulsing with currents of willful optimism, resignation, and outright desperation. While proponents of reforms lament the passing of yet another undemocratic election, others see the drama and chaos of the succession struggle as part of a larger process of political evolution. Such a perspective is not without grounds. In recent years Vietnam’s political culture has become increasingly pluralistic; Vietnam today is a country with more than 30 million Facebook users and innumerable political blogs.

While in recent weeks party elites have be leaking and and counter-leaking internal memos, expressing their views over the net while active and retired party members have openly demanded the abandonment of Leninism and comprehensive institutional reforms. It is conceivable that tensions and chaos kicked up by the current leadership succession will lend momentum to these calls.

Vietnam’s politics are developing faster than its political elites are prepared to admit. In striking contrast to China, there are calls from within and outside Vietnam’s state apparatus for more pluralistic and democratic social order. Vietnamese from diverse walks of life are discussing the nation’s politics in an increasingly open and self-confident manner. They have grown tired of the land grabs and the loudspeakers.

The notion that only tiny fractions of Vietnam’s population are interested in politics is fast fading. While Vietnamese vary in their political perspectives, there is a broad desire among them for the country’s politics to be liberated from unaccountable power politics conducted among self-interested elites. Whether those seated at the 12th party congress can assist such an outcome remains to be seen.


Notes: I’ve written this piece for a broad, non-Vietnamese audience and as such the piece may not be terribly interesting or new to Vietnamese. I am translating it now.