With Latest Resignations, Vietnam’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Intensifies

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

With Latest Resignations, Vietnam’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Intensifies

The country’s corruption crackdown, which has led to the exit of two senior leaders in recent weeks, reflects an alarming escalation of cronyism and party infighting.

With Latest Resignations, Vietnam’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Intensifies

Vietnamese Chairman of the National Assembly Vuong Dinh Hue pose for a photo at the national assembly in Hanoi, Vietnam, Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Minh Hoang, Pool, File

On April 26, at his “personal request,” the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), the country’s top decision-making body, approved the resignation of Vuong Dinh Hue, the National Assembly chairman. According to the Committee, “Hue’s transgressions and shortcomings have provoked unfavorable public opinion, tarnishing the prestige of the Party and the state, as well as his own reputation.”

The announcement followed rumors that Hue would step down, after the arrest of his long-time assistant, Pham Thai Ha. Ha, who also served as the deputy head of the National Assembly Office, was arrested last week on charges of abuse of power, according to the Ministry of Public Security. He was arrested in connection with an investigation into bribery at the Hanoi-based Thuan An Group Joint Stock Company and other related infrastructure construction projects. At the heart of the current arrest is Ha’s portrayal of himself as Hue’s staunch ally and a trusted aide in the National Assembly.

Hue’s resignation came not long after Vietnam’s President Vo Van Thuong gave up his job after only one year. The Central Inspection Commission’s investigations into Thuong’s breaches of Party regulations led to a similar conclusion as in Hue’s case: Thuong’s violations and shortcomings sparked public discontent and brought disgrace upon the Party, the state, and himself. Despite a lack of clarity, whispers about his departure had circulated for some time in relation to his 2011–2014 tenure as the Party chief of Quang Ngai province, and his presumed responsibility for the “forgery, perjury, and selective bookkeeping” that took place at the Phuc Son real estate and leading construction company during and after Thuong’s tenure as provincial party chief.

Notably, Thuong had been selected to succeed former president Nguyen Xuan Phuc just one and a half months after his own sudden resignation early last year, which was prompted by “violations” and “wrongdoing” by senior officials working under his supervision during his time as prime minister.

The unprecedented resignation of two of the “four pillars” – the most powerful posts in the Vietnamese political system – has cast a spotlight on the “blazing furnace” anti-corruption drive spearheaded by 80-year-old CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the most powerful of the “pillars.”

In general, many observers see the anti-corruption drive as a full-scale crusade against the graft that has tarnished the reputation of the Vietnamese government, both among the public and potential foreign investors. In 2022, Trong stated that there were “no forbidden zones, no exceptions” in the campaign. And the resignations and prosecutions of senior and junior Vietnamese politicians so far are evidence that the party has zero tolerance for leaders and officials who involve themselves in controversial activities or perform below expected standards. Due to corruption-related misbehavior and malfeasance, hundreds of top officials, including high-ranking CPV officials, have resigned or were compelled to do so.

But the corruption scandals and subsequent resignations are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the scenario now unfolding in Vietnam. Two factors should be heeded. First, the dismissed Party and state officials have often been closely linked to corruption and misdeeds by their subordinates. Second, these purges have been intimately associated with economic cronyism: a system in which politics and economics are intertwined, leading to the abuse of power by Party and government officials.

Crony capitalism, which is common in developing countries, creates an unfair and opaque system since personal connections between businesspeople and government officials stifles impartial competition. In a single party nation like Vietnam, cronyism – the symbiotic relationship between corrupted state agencies and officials and businesses entities – now plays a pivotal role in the allocation of economic gains among the rich and senior officials. The country has long been known for its practice of tipping the scales in the allocation of permits, government subsidies, and special tax incentives. A prime example of cronyism in Vietnam is the practice of giving government positions or favoritism in state-owned businesses exclusively to party members, their relatives, and cronies.

Since the launch of the economic reforms widely referred to as “Doi Moi” in 1986, Vietnam has propelled itself from the ranks of the world’s poorest nations to a middle-income economy in just one generation. The Vietnamese government also aspires to transform the country into a developed nation “with a modernity-oriented industry” by 2025. Vietnam has been widely hailed as a vibrant and rising economy, but the country’s political culture, which prioritizes connections over merit in obtaining political positions and economic benefits, has the potential to ossify the current power structures and stifle the country’s economic prospects. A pernicious facet of this long-term practice is the emergence and consolidation of groupings and unions predicated on the benefits of favoritism. This could intensify corruption and factionalism in a country where the leadership is opaque, which in turn could impede Vietnam’s economic sustainability and development.

Still, the anti-corruption campaign has clouded the party’s prestige and cast doubt on the system’s integrity and political stability. Considering the ongoing U.S.-China trade war and the uncertainty in the global supply chain, the credibility of the state is of the utmost importance, especially considering Vietnam’s efforts to court foreign investors. As Vietnam’s economic prosperity depends on the West for investment and technological support as well as its close relations with regional economies, the recent anti-corruption crackdowns may make the business community and foreign investors jumpy.

The political climate in Vietnam has become even more gloomy due to the recent downfall of Thuong and Hue. This raises an inevitable question: who will be thrown into the furnace next? The enduring weight of cronyism on the nation means that we might continue to see senior and junior officials fired and arrested for quite a while. But the most compelling issue at present is the factional fighting that has likely erupted following the vacating of two of the four “pillars.”

While Phuc, Thuong, and Hue’s resignations may be viewed as a Party-initiated effort to save face for them, their soft landing also raises the likelihood that the country’s “Game of Thrones” is about to heat up. With only two members remaining on their thrones – General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh – the political void is likely to spark more Party infighting.

Following Hue’s departure, the Politburo now consists of 13 members (a very unlucky number in Vietnam), down from 18 at the beginning of the 13th National Party Congress in 2021. In addition to Hue, Thuong, and Phuc, the five ousted members also include Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, and Tran Tuan Anh, the head of the CPV’s Central Economic Commission.

The leadership crisis in Vietnam has numerous causes, but the root causes are probably blatant corruption and factional strife within the CPV. In this context, heated speculation about who will be appointed the next president and chief of the National Assembly is inevitable. Dominance, compromise, consensus, and even competition, all happening behind closed doors, are bound to be especially heated, given that the race for the top positions ahead of the next Party Congress in early 2026 has already begun. While the CPV will likely attempt to preserve the internal balance of power, through its tried-and-true collective leadership structure, its ability to sustain economic growth while discouraging corruption among high-ranking officials remains uncertain.

At the same time, the growing contests of ambition, and the rising stakes of these political battles amid the anti-graft campaign, could eventually unsettle the Party’s fragile internal power balance, with potentially serious consequences for its future.

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the official stance of his affiliated institutions.