Vietnam’s new leadership picks: compromise and concessions between factions bode well for national stability

By Annisa Natalegawa, Managing Director, Asia Group Advisors (AGA),
and Ly Nguyen, Senior Associate, AGA Vietnam

Vietnam’s Communist Party has settled on its Party chief and proposed top candidates, which altogether would make up a new ‘four-pillar’ leadership for the next five years. Analysts Annisa Natalegawa and Ly Nguyen reveal a team designed to manage internal rivalries and discuss what it means for the future of national policy.

The 13th Vietnam National Party Congress which concluded on 1 February, has reportedly gained consensus on the next slate of proposed leaders for the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) for the 2021-26 period: General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong; State President Nguyen Xuan Phuc; Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh; and Chairman of the National Assembly Vuong Dinh Hue. While the General Secretary position has been confirmed, the other three positions will need to undergo official endorsement by the National Assembly which could happen anytime between February and May.

The Party Congress, convened with much pomp and circumstance every five years (this year’s event was attended by more than 1,600 delegates in person – a true feat in the COVID-19 pandemic era), typically provides a rare window into an otherwise opaque political system. This year’s outcome is no exception. The upcoming configuration of what is commonly referred to as the “four pillars” of Vietnam reinforces the influence of two senior party leaders — Nguyen Phu Trong and Nguyen Xuan Phuc — and the CPV’s preparedness to make exceptions to its own guidelines to maintain Party and state stability amidst a turbulent global environment.

According to those with visibility into the Congress, the decision on who would occupy the four pillars was made by the Politburo and the Party Central Committee (PCC) two weeks prior, at the final meeting of the 12th PCC, only to be endorsed this week. The arrangement of leadership has always been the result of considerable closed-door negotiation in the months leading to each Party Congress. What made this Congress different was that the PCC members did not reach consensus until the very last minute, reflecting intense negotiations and compromises between Party leaders.

Despite expectations for him to step down due to old age, frail health, and the fact that he has served two terms as CPV General Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, 76, plans to serve a third term. This is the second time that the Party made an exception to Trong’s age, and the first time the Party has waved its two-term limit since national reunification in 1976.

The traditional 65-year age limit was also bended for incumbent Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, 67, who will most likely move on to take on the Presidency for the upcoming term. His appointment as state President was unexpected, as there were several arguments in favor of Phuc continuing as prime minister. Phuc led the Vietnam economy to 7 percent growth prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 and has been lauded for Vietnam’s relatively successful response to the pandemic. He has also demonstrated skillfulness in managing Vietnam’s place on the global stage, managing relations between the US and China, overseeing Vietnam’s participation in several key trade agreements, and actively calling for more foreign direct investment. He is known in Australia for signing, with Malcolm Turnbull, the Australia-Vietnam strategic partnership in 2018.

Nguyen Xuan Phuc
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc moves into the Presidency – an unexpected change of roles. Image credit: World Economic Forum, Flickr.

The decision for Phuc to serve as President, rather than Prime Minister, comes as part of broader trade-off centered around the General Secretary role – the most powerful position in the country. The CPV rejected Trong’s preferred pick to take over as General Secretary – his protégé, CPV Executive Secretary Tran Quoc Vuong, who was the chief lieutenant in Trong’s cornerstone anti-corruption campaign. The elimination of his preferred successor led to various negotiations and Trong himself retaining the position.

One concession made by Trong is reflected in the fate of Hanoi Party Secretary and former Deputy Prime Minister Vuong Dinh Hue, proposed by the Congress as Chairman of the National Assembly. A leading member of Trong’s party faction, Hue was considered a top candidate for prime minister given his experience in economic and finance and his previous roles as State Auditor and Minister of Finance.  Trong had even put all the bricks in place for Hue to be eligible for the position, including assigning him to the Hanoi Party Secretary role in September 2020, so that he meets the qualification of having held a leadership position at provincial level.

Hue ultimately lost out on the prime minister spot to Pham Minh Chinh – an outcome few had foreseen until the last few weeks leading to the Congress. A former Deputy Minister of Public Security from 2010 to 2011, Chinh is considered a CPV stalwart. He has been Head of the Party’s Central Organization Commission since 2016, during which he was a member of the National Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption which was headed by General Secretary Trong. Chinh is well-connected across the CPV and is a strategic choice due to his ability to work with both Party factions.

Chinh held several roles at the Ministry of Public Security between 2007 and 2011 before being appointed to the Quang Ninh Party Secretary role in 2011. His selection as Prime Minister indicates a rising CPV emphasis on national security and stability, especially given rising geopolitical tensions and the global pandemic.

As a relatively obscure CPV official, there is little public record of Chinh’s views on issues ranging from foreign investment, SOE reform, financial sector restructuring, or the US-China rivalry. While Chinh has had some experience in regional economic development in a previous role as Quang Ninh Party Secretary, there are concerns that his economic experience at the national level might not be comparable with his predecessor Phuc or the aforementioned Hue.

This configuration, if confirmed by the National Assembly, reinforces the outlook for collective Party policymaking and strengthens the four-pillar system. Given Chinh’s lack of experience in national economic policy, there will need to be greater collaboration amongst the new Prime Minister and President, and possibly National Assembly Chairman Hue. General Secretary Trong will continue to push his anti-corruption campaign within the Party and the government, albeit to a lesser extent than during his previous terms, as he has effectively reached his goal of creating a legacy on the issue.

Given Vietnam’s collective decision-making process in determining its leaders, the new leadership team is not expected to make significant changes to the country’s approach to economic management, politics or foreign affairs. With Trong and Phuc’s continued leadership and control, Vietnam is set to maintain its finely balanced relationships with China and the US, and to push ahead with continued economic reform and opening while keeping a close eye on signs of political unrest at home.

Annisa Natalegawa is Partner and Managing Director of Asia Group Advisors (AGA), a government relations and public affairs consulting firm.
Ly Nguyen is Senior Associate at AGA Vietnam, based in Hanoi.

Banner image: Vietnamese flags hang in Hanoi's Old Quarter - May 2, 2016. Credit: Xita, Shutterstock.