Vietnam News

Power struggle in Vietnam brings third president in less than 2 years

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But it remains unclear whether Gen. To Lam, the new president, can rise to the post of the top leader, the chief of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

A powerful security official was named president of Vietnam on Wednesday, the third person in the job in less than 18 months amid jostling ahead of a generational change in leadership.

In an extraordinary session of Parliament, lawmakers rubber-stamped the appointment of Gen. To Lam, 66, the minister of public security, who had been nominated for president by the Vietnamese Communist Party over the weekend.

On Monday, lawmakers approved the nomination of Tran Thanh Man, 61, as the chairman of the National Assembly. Both posts are part of a four-member collective that runs Vietnam. (The other two are party chief, which is effectively the top job, and the prime minister.)

Consequently, both General Lam and Mr. Man could be in the running to replace Nguyen Phu Trong, who has been the party chief for the past 13 years. Mr. Trong, 80, is serving an unprecedented third five-year term as leader after he was re-elected in 2021. The succession vacuum has led to an intense power struggle in Vietnam — which was once known for its stable and scripted politics — ahead of the next leadership transition in 2026.

General Lam, analysts said, has the edge over Mr. Man in winning the leadership race. He has implemented an anti-corruption effort — championed by Mr. Trong — whose scope and scale have dramatically widened in recent years. Many officials, including the predecessors of General Lam and Mr. Man, have been felled under the guise of this so-called “blazing furnace” campaign.

General Lam also presided over a sweeping crackdown on civil society and has been accused of being involved in a high-profile kidnapping of a former Vietnamese provincial official from Berlin in 2017.

On Tuesday, lawmakers voted to relieve General Lam from his position as public security minister. It remains to be seen whether he can ascend to party chief.

“His background as minister of public security offers him a lot of power but may also be a setback for him because he’s feared by many people,” said Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow on Vietnam at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “If he becomes the party chief, people have already raised concerns that he may utilize the security apparatus to turn Vietnam into a police state.”

In March, General Lam’s predecessor, Vo Van Thuong, resigned only a year after taking office. He was found to have violated regulations for party members, but officials did not specify what those regulations were. His predecessor, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, also abruptly quit in January 2023 amid similar circumstances.

In addition to the two former presidents, the speaker of Parliament and two deputy prime ministers have stepped down in recent years because the party said they had committed wrongdoing. Since 2022, six members of the Politburo, the country’s top decision-making body, have been removed. On Thursday, the party named four new members to the Politburo.

Mr. Man’s predecessor as speaker of Parliament, Vuong Dinh Hue, resigned last month after the Central Inspection Committee found that he had violated regulations governing Communist Party members.

General Lam came under immense criticism in Vietnam in 2021 after a video that showed him eating steak covered in 24-karat gold flakes at a restaurant in London went viral. At the time, Vietnam was under a harsh pandemic lockdown, and the meal cost as much as $1,150, about six times the monthly income of an average Vietnamese worker. Last year, a Vietnamese activist, who parodied the meal in a video, was sentenced to more than five years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state.”

At Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony, General Lam said the position was a big honor and responsibility. He pledged to pursue “policies and guidelines set out by the party.”

Corruption is endemic in Vietnam — it ranks 83rd out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index, below China and Cuba. Fearing that graft could hurt the legitimacy of the party, Mr. Trong began the anti-corruption drive in 2016, vowing to eradicate “bad roots” and purify the party.

But analysts have questioned whether some of these targets were political purges, especially within a system that is opaque. Foreign investors have also complained that the anti-corruption campaign has slowed decision-making, as officials are now hesitant to approve projects or issue business licenses for fear of being embroiled in a corruption investigation.

Despite the upheaval, foreign investors have not turned away from Vietnam, which has emerged as an important global manufacturing hub in recent years as multinational companies have sought an alternative to China. Between January and April of this year, foreign direct investment in Vietnam rose 7.4 percent from last year, to $6.3 billion. According to data from Bloomberg, the country’s benchmark stock index has risen about 13 percent this year, making it the best performer in Southeast Asia.

By Sui-Lee Wee – The New York Times – May 21, 2024

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