Vietnam’s New President: Key Takeaways for Domestic Politics and Foreign Relations

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Vietnam’s New President: Key Takeaways for Domestic Politics and Foreign Relations

The appointment of the youthful Vo Van Thuong could hint at a generational leadership transition in the years to come.

Vietnam’s New President: Key Takeaways for Domestic Politics and Foreign Relations
Credit: Depositphotos

In early March, after slightly more than a month, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)’s Politburo finally reached a consensus and appointed one of its 16 members to the vacant position of state president, the second rank in the top “four pillars” of the Vietnamese political system. Vo Van Thuong, who was also then the standing member of the Secretariat, was elected by the National Assembly to the presidency. Thuong’s appointment is part of a recent political shake-up at the highest rungs of Vietnamese politics, as discussed in a recent webinar hosted by The Diplomat, which resulted in the resignation of his predecessor Nguyen Xuan Phuc and two deputy prime ministers, Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam, linked to grand corruption cases involving the fight against COVID-19. The changes have also drawn the attention of a wider community of Vietnam experts, who have discussed the likely consequences of Thuong’s election, as well as the possibility that Vo Van Thuong could even become the next CPV secretary-general.

The discussion here will center on general questions, such as why Vo Van Thuong was chosen to fill the vacant presidential post. Also, what does his election to the presidency mean for domestic politics? Is it a sign of the rise of southern politicians in the CPV’s ranks? Will it have any impact on Vietnam’s foreign policy and foreign relations? What are the challenges facing Thuong? What is the future of his political career? And what are the implications for the CPV’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign?

Vo Van Thuong is not a new face on Vietnam’s political stage. He has been a member of the CPV Politburo and Secretariat since 2016 and a member of the Central Committee since 2006. Between 2006 and 2011, Thuong was leader (thu linh) and first secretary of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union, which is a CPV-entrusted source providing potential candidates for the country’s leadership. He was taken up by Hanoi after serving six years as the secretary of the Quang Ngai Provincial Party Committee (2011-2014) and as the standing deputy secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee (2014-2016), respectively.

Before being elected to the Presidential Palace, Thuong was the standing member of the CPV Central Committee’s Secretariat which is, according to the party’s statutes, responsible for leading day-to-day party affairs. This includes, but is not limited to, party-building work and the execution of the party’s resolutions and directives on economic, social, national defense, security, and foreign relations affairs. He was directly in charge of party-to-party and people-to-people relations, two of the three pillars of Vietnam’s foreign relations. He was also the Chairman of the CPV Central Commission for Propagation and Education Affairs (2016-2021), which controls the country’s media outlets.

Thuong’s multi-role career, which involved roles at both the local and central levels over the past 17 years, has made him well qualified to hold one of the “four pillars” positions. Furthermore, compared to the majority of the other Politburo members, Vo Van Thuong stands out in six aspects. The first point of difference is the fact that he is currently in the middle of his second term on the Politburo, 10 of whose current 16 members are in the middle of their first term.

Second, Thuong is also the youngest member of the body and will be 56 years old at the 14th congress in 2026, while 11 out of the 16 members, including Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh (68), National Assembly Chairperson Vuong Dinh Hue (69), and Minister of Public Security To Lam (69), will retire if the CPV strictly applies its 65 year age limit rule. This means that he is eligible to sit in the top position for at least two more terms, or until 2038. The two-term limit for the presidency makes it likely that he will be promoted to the post of CPV secretary-general at the 15th congress in 2031, if not earlier.

Thuong’s third advantage is that he was the fourth-ranking member of the Politburo after President Nguyen Xuan Phuc resigned in January. This gave him a better chance compared to the rest to move forward to the position.

The fourth advantage is his position as the standing member of the Secretariat, where his ability to handle issues of domestic politics and foreign affairs has been proven. Fifth, it goes without saying that he is close to the current CPV Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, acting as his assistant in day-to-day party affairs in his role as the standing member of the Secretariat and in the anti-corruption campaign in his role as a vice chairman of the Central Steering Committee for Anti-Corruption and Prevention of Negative Practices.

In fact, Thuong’s elevation to the presidency should be viewed as Trong’s success in accomplishing one of his core duties as party chief, which is the training and preparation of his successor. On various occasions, Thuong has echoed Trong’s statements on the no-restriction and no-exception zone in the fight against corruption. He has also called, with increasing pressure within the CPV Central Committee, for those who were disciplined for alleged wrongdoings and decreased credibility, to resign. Thuong’s attacks on corruption with those outspoken statements have reassured Trong that the anti-corruption campaign will continue after his retirement. Finally, and more importantly, unlike Tran Quoc Vuong, his predecessor as a standing member of the Secretariat and deputy head of the anti-corruption committee, Thuong has been able to garner support and has not created any “enemies” who can challenge him in the Central Committee.

In 2021, the line-up of the top four positions at the conclusion of the CPV’s 13th congress prompted comments that the CPV had abandoned its traditional practices and broken the norm of having at least one of the top four positions from each geographical region: north, center, and south. It was once assumed that the CPV secretary general would be allocated to the north, which is associated with the history and ideology of the CPV, while the state president would be assigned to the center, the home of the CPV’s founding father and president Ho Chi Minh. Meanwhile, the prime minister would be appointed from the south, the source of Vietnam’s economic dynamism, and the national assembly chairperson would come from either north or central Vietnam.

However, this norm is unwritten, and has never been formally established or institutionalized. The allocation of power among the top four pillars on the grounds of balanced regional representation has been of relative insignificance since the Ho Chi Minh era, if one takes a more holistic view of personnel appointments over that time. As such, Thuong’s rise to the presidency should not be seen as a sign of regional balancing but rather a reinvigoration of the performance-based approach that the CPV has pursued since the Doi Moi reforms of the late 1980s to restore and buttress its legitimacy.

The CPV’s legitimacy has been reinforced by high economic growth at home and the expansion of its foreign relations abroad. Vietnam’s foreign policy of multilateralization and diversification was reaffirmed at the CPV’s 13th congress in 2021. It should be emphasized here that Vietnam’s foreign policy is adopted by the CPV congress and can be changed or adjusted only by a resolution passed by the Central Committee. That being said, and whoever occupies the presidency, Thuong’s appointment will have no immediate impact on the country’s foreign policy.

Making any predictions about Thuong’s future and his possible consequential impacts on Vietnamese politics are at this stage foolhardy. However, for an optimistic student of the subject, there are at least five things to take away from Thuong’s election to the presidency.

The first is Thuong’s relative youth compared to the rest of the Politburo. In a Confucian-influenced society like Vietnam, where patriarchal order is expected and the perception of advancement of the older age over younger remains popular, Thuong’s rise should be recognized as a change in the mindset of the conservative elite within the CPV about the age bar necessary for an individual to become a leader, especially at the top level of power. However, this could also pose a challenge to Thuong’s survival should he fail to perform diligently and represent the authority vested in him as head of the state.

The second is that the appointment is one more step in the CPV’s carefully controlled process of political reform. By installing the younger Thuong in the country’s second-highest ranking position, the CPV has taken a rather bold step, breaking a glass ceiling for younger generations to take a grip on power. As a former youth leader, Thuong will surely set an example and attract younger Vietnamese to join the party and the system. Nguyen Phu Trong once complained about the apathy of young people toward the party and its legacy. It should also be highlighted here that Truong Thi Mai, also a former youth leader, has been promoted to replace Vo Van Thuong as the standing Politburo member of the Secretariat. Mai becomes the first woman ever to hold this position.

The third takeaway is the importance of the personal credits that Thuong has accrued during his career. As a politician, he is generally seen as having “clean” hands and has not been involved in any alleged corruption cases. A well-known Vietnamese Facebooker commented that Thuong had earned the public’s trust and was sowing seeds of hope that a new generation of leadership would lead a state apparatus free from corruption.

The fourth and final takeaway is that the CPV might be once again taking a gamble in appointing a younger man to a top power position, as it did with former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who was both the youngest member of the CPV Politburo (at 47) and the youngest prime minister (at 57) in the Doi Moi era. Dung promised to step down if corruption was not brought under control during his premiership, but during his decade in office, corruption became rampant and worsened across society.

Finally, in the run-up to the next party congress in 2026, Thuong will face a test of his ability and competency. In the first week dispensing his presidential duties, Thuong has been involved in both domestic politics and foreign relations. If he performs well and continues to gain trust and support from Trong over the next three years, Thuong is likely to replace him or even be entrusted to hold concurrently the two top positions – that of CPV chief and state president. Given his young age, he could serve in this position for as long as a decade, leading reforms at the top echelons of the CPV. His performance over the next three years, therefore, bears close watching.