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Vietnam: Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong Resumes Duties; By Carlyle A. Thayer

CAS Article No. 16/2019

June 28 2019

Courtesy: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam: Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong Resumes Duties,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, May 16, 2019.

We are writing to request your assessment of a report that Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong seems to have recovered and chaired a meeting with his top cabinet members yesterday night. Our questions are: Q1. How do you think Secretary General Trong’s first appearance since April 14th will affect Vietnam’s political climate? ANSWER: The video of Secretary General and President Nguyen Phu Trong chairing a senior leaders’ meeting was designed to reassure the Vietnamese public that Trong has recovered from his recent fatigue and illness and is back in the driver’s seat directing senior party leaders about preparations for the thirteenth national party congress among other matters.

The video showed only still shots of Trong with his right hand aloft but left arm down. There was no voice recording of him speaking. If Trong suffered a brain aneurism it is likely he may have suffered some neurological damage such as the use of his left arm and slurring of speech. This video, therefore, will not squelch speculation about Trong’s health and leadership succession. Rumors and speculation can be put to bed if Trong appears active and vibrant at the tenth Central Committee plenum expected to convene this month prior to the opening of the National Assembly’s seventh session.

Q2. Watching the televised meeting some viewers remarked that Secretary General/ President Trong gave his top cabinet members instructions rather than discussing ideas with them. What is your assessment? ANSWER: The TV video was too brief to make any definitive assessment. Viet Nam News Agency reported that Trong heard and discussed with the senior leaders a report by Nguyen Van Nen on the activities of the Office of the Party Central Committee, National Assembly, Office of the President and Government in April. They also discussed how to follow up with subordinate functional agencies and mass organisations.

According to VNA, Trong and the four senior leaders also discussed the work program for May, including meetings of the Politburo, Secretariat and Central Committee as well as progress on drafting policy documents for the thirteenth national party congress. In sum, the VNA report was designed to show that Secretary General Trong was in charge and directing party and state affairs as usual.

Q3. Among Trong’s instructions were: “We must emphasize the spirit of solidarity is high in the party, solidarity, unity and consensus, especially in the central and local areas.It is necessary to continue the fight against corruption, negativity, wastefulness, not to slow down, so that the people will worry, we may even have to do more in this respect.” What is your assessment of this quote? ANSWER: These are all Trong’s flagship themes. The purpose of highlighting these remarks was to emphasize that Trong is in charge and its back to business as usual. In other words, there will be continuity not change.

Q4. Among his top five cabinet members, who do you think will be his replacement? Mr. Tran Quoc Vuong, maybe?

ANSWER: It is unclear if Vietnam’s party leaders have decided to keep the posts of party Secretary General and state President concurrent, that is held by the same person, or separate them after Trong retires.

If the party maintains its present policy of retirement at age 65, there are only seven members of the Politburo who will be under 65 in 2021. Party rules stipulate that a person can be nominated if they turn 65 after half way in their five year term. Of course current rules can be changed and exceptions made.

In the case of Tran Quoc Vuong, the Chair of the Central Inspection Committee, he will be 68 in 2021. This would seem to disqualify him but party sources report there is flexibility about age limits for candidates for higher party/state posts and the health of the potential candidate will be a prime consideration. Vuong has party seniority in his favour but lacks requisite experience in state/government affairs.

In answer to your question, strictly speaking, there are only five members of the Cabinet on the Politburo – Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of National Defence, Minister of Public Security and Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Prime Minister and Minister of National Defence can be ruled out on the basis of age as both will be over 65 in 2021. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Security will be 64, while the Foreign Minister will be 62. If we include the Chair and Deputy Chair of the National Assembly, both can be ruled out as they will be 67 in 2021. It is my assessment that the next party Secretary General/President will not come from this group.

There are only six remaining members of the Politburo who will be under 65 in 2021 (Pham Minh Chinh, Vuong Dinh Hue, Truong Thi Mai, Nguyen Van Binh, Hoang Trung Hai, and Vo Van Thuong). Who is likely to succeed Trong as Secretary General will largely be determined if the party leadership post is concurrent with that of state President. Not all of the six Politiburo members who will be under 65 in 2021 have extensive service at high levels in the government. Most are heads of Central Committee Commissions. Hue who is Deputy Prime Minister and Head of the Steering Committee for the Southwest Region will be 64 in 2021, the others are younger.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The views expressed are his own. All his background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. The views expressed in this article are of the author.]

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