Vietnam’s Communist Party chief set to become president

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, is expected to be chosen as the country’s next president when the one-party state’s rubber-stamp National Assembly meets on Monday, making him the first person since founding father Ho Chi Minh to hold both posts.

Trong, 74, is the only candidate to succeed Tran Dai Quang, who died last month following a serious illness.

Under Vietnam’s political system, the country follows what it calls “balanced leadership” with no overall leader and the general secretary, president, prime minister and National Assembly chairperson all acting as a check and balance on each other.

Nevertheless, while the presidency is a largely ceremonial position, it is likely to strengthen Trong’s political clout at a time when he is leading a crackdown on high-level corruption that has snared business people, state executives, and even a member of the politburo.

‘Very confident’

The Communist Party’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi in April [Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters]

“If it [merging the presidency and the general secretary role] is going to be permanent, that says that Trong is very confident, not just in his own power, but in the power of getting his protege to be the next general secretary,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington DC who specialises in Southeast Asian political and security issues.

“If there was any doubt in his mind, he would keep these positions separate.”

Vice President Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh is currently the country’s acting president and Vietnam’s first female head of state, but she has not been put forward as a candidate in the election, which will be decided by a secret ballot of the assembly. The new president will be sworn in immediately afterwards with the ceremony broadcast live on television.

The likelihood of Trong becoming both general secretary and president has drawn comparisons to China’s Xi Jinping, who has amassed unparalleled power and was appointed as president with no term limit in March this year. Xi has also pursued an aggressive campaign against corruption.

‘Legitimate concern’

“It’s a legitimate concern,” said Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, adding he was surprised that Trong had been nominated for the presidency given his age and a supposed lack of interest in the role.

“Obviously one person holding two positions will have much more power than just one position, but I think the system in Vietnam is different. Even when you have one person in two positions, that person will not be as powerful as Xi. Here in Vietnam they are more consensus-based, more pluralistic, and Trong will have to consult with his colleagues in the Politburo.”

Trong became party leader in 2011 and secured a second term in 2016, reportedly facing down influential prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who was subsequently forced out of government in an internal struggle for power.

The last couple of years have seen a noticeable crackdown on dissent. At least 119 people were in jail as of January for criticising the government, taking part in peaceful protests, or joining political groups seen as rivals to the Communist Party, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Independent political parties and unions are banned in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s government remains “one of the most intolerant in the region”, Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director said earlier this month.

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Congress in 2021

Nicholas Chapman, a research fellow at the International University of Japan who focuses on Vietnamese politics, said Trong’s nomination would likely help cement his power within the party and country for years to come.

“The current prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, is allied with Trong,” Chapman said. “But Trong is wary of the future. You might get another Dung coming along, and being president would give him a bit more influence and more of an ability to drive home the anti-corruption campaign he’s taken on.”

Political decision-making within the Communist Party is notoriously opaque, but analysts say it is possible the decision to have Trong hold both positions may only be temporary. The next National Congress will take place in 2021 when a new government and party leaders will be chosen.

“He will have more power but I don’t think that will have a lot of significant implications for either the economy or the political system,” Hiep said. “We have to observe whether this arrangement goes beyond 2021 or not. If it does, then we will talk more about the implications.”

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