Is Vietnam Entering Uncharted Waters?

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Is Vietnam Entering Uncharted Waters?

The recent prolonged absence of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong raised the question of how the Communist Party might deal with a leader’s incapacitation or death.

Is Vietnam Entering Uncharted Waters?
Credit: Depositphotos

This month Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong failed to make an appearance during the recent visits of the Lao prime minister and Indonesian president. This gave rise to intense speculation in the Western media that Trong is seriously ill and is being treated in hospital.

While Trong subsequently appeared at a National Assembly meeting on January 15, in apparent good health,  his prolonged absence raised the question of what Vietnam might do in the event of his incapacitation before the end of his term as party leader. Trong’s absence gave rise to three plausible scenarios: (1)  Trong is unable to resume full-time official duties due to health reasons; (2) Trong is physically incapacitated and unable to carry out any official duties; and (3) Trong passes away. Who would assume the responsibilities of party leader under each scenario?

Trong is currently serving his third five-year term as party leader. His term will expire in early 2026 when the CPV’s  14th National Congress is expected to be held. One of the duties of the party general secretary is to recommend his successor, subject to the approval of the Central Committee. Last year, Trong was appointed head of the Personnel Committee to vet nominees for the Central Committee and other high-level party posts to be elected in 2026.

The next general secretary must first be elected to the new Central Committee by delegates to the 14th National Congress. The new Central Committee will then elect the new Politburo and among its members the next general secretary.

Scenario One: If Trong were at any point unable to resume full-time official duties due to health reasons, but was able to consult occasionally, the Politburo could decide to maintain the status quo and let Trong serve out the remainder of his term. This option would follow the precedent set when State President Tran Dai Quang fell ill and was retained in office until his death.

Scenario Two: If Trong were to be incapacitated and unable to resume official duties, the Politburo would have to nominate a successor for approval by the Central Committee. Trong’s successor could be a caretaker (or to use a cricket term “night watchman”), who would serve out the remaining term of office but not seek election for a full five-year term.

Scenario Three: If Trong should pass away while in office, the Politburo would have to immediately nominate a successor subject to approval by the Central Committee. There is only one precedent in Vietnam’s post-reunification period. In 1986, when party leader Le Duan died in office, he was replaced by the chairman of the Council of State who served until the 6th National Congress in December 1986. The Council of State has since been replaced by the office of state president.

The Central Committee would have to decide whether or not to accelerate the two-year transition process by selecting a member of the Politburo to serve out the remaining period of Trong’s term and then stand for election as general secretary at the 14th National Congress for a full five-year term.

Who Will Next Lead the CPV?

The nominee for party general secretary must have served one full five-year term on the Politburo.

The VCP’s 13th National Congress originally elected a Politburo of 18 members. Two members, Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Pham Binh Minh, have since resigned. Trong’s health likely rules him out, reducing the pool of possible candidates for the next party general secretary to 15.

If the CPV follows its regulations on compulsory retirement at age 65 (those born before 1961) only four of the remaining 15 members are qualified: Tran Tuan Anh (62 years of age in 2026), Tran Thanh Man (64 years of age), Dinh Tien Dung and Tran Cam Tu (both 65 years of age).

Three other criteria need to be taken into account: seniority and party rank, age, and region of birth.

On seniority, of the pool of 15 possible candidates, four were elected to the Politburo at the 12th National Congress in 2016; all the rest were elected at the 13th National Congress in 2021. Politburo members are currently ranked according to the votes received when they were elected in this order: Pham Minh Chinh (second), Vuong Dinh Hue (third), Vo Van Thuong (fourth), and Truong Thi Mai (11th).

Three of the four possible candidates will be aged sixty-eight or older in 2026: Pham Minh Chinh (68), Truong Thi Mai (68), and Vuong Dinh Hue (69). The one exception is Vo Van Thuong, who will be 56 years old in 2026. Party regulations, however, permit exemptions to the retirement age for “exceptional” candidates.

The party’s general secretary usually hails from a northern province but that is not a statutory requirement. Pham Minh Chinh (Thanh Hoa) and Vuong Dinh Hue (Nghe An province) are from the north, Truong Thi Mai (Quang Binh province) is from the center, and Vo Van Thuong (Vinh Long province) is from the south.

Looking Into the Crystal Ball

There is ongoing discussion within CPV circles about raising the mandatory retirement age of 65 by two or three years. If this were promulgated it would expand the number of incumbent Politburo members eligible to stand for election as party general secretary from five to six (if raised by two years) to 10 (if raised by three years).

There are potentially six likely candidates to replace General Secretary Trong under scenarios two and three discussed above.

Scenario 2: Three senior members of the Politburo could serve as caretakers: Pham Minh Chinh, Vuong Dinh Hue, and Truong Thi Mai.

Pham Minh Chinh is the most senior member of the Politburo after Trong.

Vuong Dinh Hue appears the most qualified as two previous party leaders, Nong Duc Manh and Nguyen Phu Trong, served as chairman of the National Assembly before taking on the duties as party leader. Hue scored well in the National Assembly’s 2023 vote of confidence coming second with the most votes of high confidence.

Appointing Chinh or Hue could be disruptive given that they are respectively the prime minister and chairman of the National Assembly Standing Committee.

Truong Thi Mai is frequently mentioned as a likely candidate for the party’s leadership. She is currently the Permanent Member of the Secretariat and head of the CPV’s Central Organization Commission.

Chinh, Hue, and Mai will be over the 65 retirement age by early 2026 and would need an exemption for exceptional performance to continue in office for a full five-year term.

Scenario 3: There are potentially three other candidates to replace Trong should he die in office: Minister of Public Security To Lam, Gen. Phan Van Giang, the Minister of National Defense, and State President Vo Van Thuong. Lam and Giang would need exemptions to serve beyond their role as caretakers.

Lam is reputed to be a strong supporter of Trong’s anti-corruption campaign. He performed poorly in the National Assembly’s 2023 vote of confidence. While Lam received 329 votes of high confidence, well behind Giang, Hue, and Chinh, he received a solid 109 votes of confidence. Lam has his detractors, however, as he received 43 votes of low confidence (or 36th place out of 44).

Giang topped the National Assembly’s 2023 vote of confidence with 448 high confidence votes and only four low confidence votes. Giang is also a likely candidate for state president if Thuong, the incumbent, should be elected general secretary. Giang would be following in the footsteps of Le Duc Anh, a former Minister of National Defense who later served as president.

President Thuong is the youngest member of the Politburo. He was born in 1970 and will be 56 in 2026, raising the possibility that he could serve two full five-year terms as party general secretary. Thuong would provide stability to the Politburo, though his youth, southern origins, and relative inexperience are often cited as drawbacks.

Crisis and Power Struggle?

As noted above, the CPV’s general secretary has the responsibility for grooming and recommending his successor. Ordinarily, one or more straw polls would be conducted by the Central Committee prior to the next national party congress. These polls would determine the final candidate list for selection to the new Central Committee, including the next party leader.

If General Secretary Trong becomes incapacitated or dies in office at any time before the end of his current term,  this would compress the two-year leadership planning cycle for the 14th National Congress set for early 2026.

Leadership selection for a future national congress is usually a process of give and take between the party and government wings of the national leadership. Each wing has its own personality-centered cliques or factions.

A compressed decision-making cycle is likely to put stress on Vietnam’s consensual style of decision-making and intensify competition between the party and government wings because of the absence of a paramount leader. General Secretary Trong’s network of supporters in the party wing would want to move quickly to see that their interests and expectations are not overridden. Party officials who are members of the government wing will want to take this unexpected opportunity to advance their interests.

While Trong’s absence threatened to push Vietnam into uncharted political waters, the country is unlikely to experience a political crisis or a power struggle because the prevailing political culture affecting leadership selection and generational transition favors stability and sectoral balance.