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“Feigning death to catch crows”? Vietnam’s succession conundrum

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Recent rumours of Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s ill health and even death were greatly exaggerated. However, the speculation highlighted the weakness of the Party’s thinking and preparation for the inevitable political succession.

n the second week of January 2024, rumours swirled in Vietnam about the health of Nguyen Phu Trong, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)’s 79-year old general secretary. At the time, Trong’s last public engagement was on 26 December 2023 when he received the then head of the Japanese Communist Party Shii Kazuo. He was also conspicuously absent from public life, including for the important bilateral visits of Lao Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo.

Whispers of Trong’s worsening illness, hospitalisation, and even death circulated via social media by prominent Vietnamese key opinion leaders and more discreetly among political observers. ‘Confirmations’ from influential voices in Vietnam’s online sphere seemed to solidify the claims. Even international media outlets, including Bloomberg and Reuters, fanned the flames with their reports.

However, the narrative took an unexpected turn on 15 January, when Trong participated in the National Assembly’s extraordinary session in Hanoi. Although visibly frail, he was clearly well enough for the occasion. This leads to two theories about the rumour mill: either Trong had strategically “feigned death to catch crows” (a Vietnamese proverb) to gauge which factions could prematurely vie for power or to suss out which rival factions had spread false news about his health to pressure him into accelerating political succession.

Some informal sources have indicated that Trong had contracted Type A influenza and was recovering during his absence. This is not the first time Vietnam has experienced such a scare where Trong is concerned. In 2019, he suffered from a stroke, which resulted in a long absence. Even then, this fuelled speculation about his health and a potential change of CPV leadership. In 2021, when elected for his third consecutive five-year term, Trong acknowledged his advanced age and declining health.  

In the Vietnamese context, information on top party leaders’ health and other potential weaknesses is closely kept. Correspondingly, public curiosity and speculation about their wellbeing are understandable. Given the ubiquity of social media nowadays, however, the state’s (and party’s) reluctance to confirm or deny such rumour at critical junctures exacerbates the spread of fake news and disinformation. These moments, which have rattled Vietnamese and foreign observers, businesses, and diplomatic circles, underscore how succession uncertainty has become a significant risk factor in Vietnam.

Three main factors contribute to this predicament. First, Trong’s decade-plus rule has seen a marked centralisation of power, with increasing authority vested in the general secretary’s position. This shift challenges the CPV’s traditional collective leadership model. Trong has now been in the Politburo for six consecutive terms, while the other members have served two terms each at most. He is 13 years older than the next oldest member of the Politburo, Director of the Ho Chi Minh Academy of Politics Nguyen Xuan Thang (born in 1957, aged 67 this year). As such, Trong’s prolonged tenure and seniority make him an almost indispensable patriarch. It would be extremely challenging for his successor to enter office with an equivalent level of gravitas and clout. 

Second, Trong’s successor will inherit a potent position but this means that the already weak collective leadership structure might be at the risk of further erosion. A younger successor, with more time at their disposal, might be tempted to consolidate power for personal gain. This could involve building patronage networks with vested interests, like in the case of the former PM Nguyen Tan Dung. This is unlike how Trong has invested his political capital in strengthening party regulations for anti-corruption efforts. In the absence of robust institutional checks and balances, Trong’s anti-corruption campaign might be compromised under new leadership.

To avoid this potential crisis in the scenario of post-Trong internal infighting, there is urgency for the CPV to further institutionalise the succession process.

Third and most crucially, the CPV lacks a clear succession plan. Even before the latest rumours, the party has struggled to identify a suitable replacement for Trong. This was reflected in the stalemate at the CPV’s 13th Congress in 2021 when Trong’s designated successor Tran Quoc Vuong was not elected, which led Trong to stay for a third term (this was an “exemption” against the Party’s rules, which do not permit one to be general secretary for more than two consecutive terms). The situation has not changed much. None of the obvious potential successors, who include President Vo Van Thuong, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, National Assembly Chair Vuong Dinh Hue, Permanent Member of the CPV Secretariat Truong Thi Mai, and Minister of Public Security To Lam, seem to have a strong advantage. This could lead to bitter factional struggles when Trong does fade away, which will in turn undermine Vietnam’s political stability.

To avoid this potential crisis in the scenario of post-Trong internal infighting, there is urgency for the CPV to further institutionalise the succession process. Under Trong, the CPV has actually built a solid foundation, particularly Decision 244 which institutionalises party elections and key regulations on the criteria and confidence-voting process for high-ranking officials. Moving forward, the CPV can perhaps consider direct voting so that CPV Congress members can select the general secretary, instead of the existing mechanism of “delegation”. (Editor’s note: This is where 1,300 CPV congress members vote for a 200-member central committee, who then vote for the general secretary.) Several localities have piloted this alternative direct method since 2010 but while this change has been deliberated among CPV theoreticians, it has not been implemented.

Norm-bound succession is one of the key pillars of authoritarian resilience. The current opacity surrounding the CPV’s succession process more than fuels political uncertainty: it turns rumours about Trong’s health into national intrigue and wider concern. For Trong, taking steps to craft a more predictable succession might well be the defining feature of his legacy.

By Nguyen Khac Giang – / Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS) – January 24, 2024

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