- Succession Politics and Authoritarian Resilience in Vietnam
On his seventy-fifth birthday, on 14 April 2019, Nguyen Phu Trong visited the southern province of Kien Giang, a practice he had adopted since being re-elected as secretary general of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) in 2016. This time it did not go well; it was rumoured that Trong suffered a stroke, and he was subjected to a lengthy hospital stay.2 He appeared fragile during his first public appearance a month later, and in June he had to delegate National Assembly (NA) chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan to visit China on his behalf. There was only limited coverage of these events in the tightly controlled Vietnamese media, as they tried to downplay the significance of Trong's deteriorating health.
In 2021 the VCP will hold its 13th National Congress, at which Trong—who will be seventy-seven by then—is expected to step down. However, this is only a high possibility, not a certainty. When re-elected in 2016, Trong hinted that he would retire in the middle of his term to make room for younger leaders. In the two years following his re-election, however, he consolidated power to become the most powerful figure in Vietnamese politics in decades. The sudden health incident will have likely put an end to any wish of his to remain in power for longer. What is more important however is whether Trong's illness has any implications for Vietnamese succession politics. As the head of both the party and the state, Trong's preference will weigh heavily in the candidate selection process for the hot seat in 2021. The tradition in Vietnamese politics is for party elders to have strong opinions over who will assume their posts (or even who [End Page 411] should step down). The rise and fall of Secretary General Le Kha Phieu vividly illustrated that. Phieu was promoted to the party's supreme position in 1997 when he gained the support of both Le Duc Anh and Do Muoi after a long tug of war between two camps. He was nevertheless dethroned four years later when the party elders opposed his re-election.3
Tran Quoc Vuong, the executive secretary of the party's Secretariat—the fourth most powerful member of the party—was considered Trong's right-hand man and his favoured candidate for the top post. Vuong, however, is not a perfect choice. In addition to his lack of governance experience, he will exceed the age limit by the time the 13th Party Congress takes place. If health issues prevent Trong from maintaining his influence, it would be difficult for him to push ahead with his selection. In addition, Vuong is competing with other strong candidates, most notably the prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and the head of the VCP's Central Organization Commission, Pham Minh Chinh.
The situation will likely lead to a heated political struggle during the next congress, similar to what was seen in 2016. At that time the contest between the then prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong proved to be unpredictable until the very last minute. Both were over the age limit, but Trong secured the only exemption for an overaged candidate and won the race. The defeat exacted a heavy toll on Dung's allies; the anti-corruption campaign—known as the "hot furnace"—burned down many of their political careers. Dinh La Thang was dismissed as Ho Chi Minh City's party secretary and became the first Politburo member to be tried under criminal law for corruption. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison by a Hanoi court in 2018.4 A series of southern provincial leaders, former central officials, and managers of stateowned enterprises deemed to be Dung's supporters were also disciplined.5 A key technocrat under Dung's government, Nguyen Van Binh, was sidelined to the largely ceremonial position of head of the Central Economic Commission. Most of the new key posts were occupied by Trong's allies, giving him unprecedented power to impose his policy. It is not an exaggeration to say that, through the...