Congress 13: Changes and challenges for new leadership

Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong speaking at the closing ceremony of the 13th Congress

The new Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), the highest authority of the Party is decided at the 13th National Congress on the basis of the personnel plan proposed by the collective consensus of the  Central Committee of the 12th term. The new leadership will manage and administer a development policy that affects the lives of the entire population, so it attracts the attention of political observers. The role of the “four pillars”- the party’s General Secretary, the State President, the Prime Minister, and the Chairperson of the National Assembly, has a decisive role in the centralized power mechanism. The exposure of specific individuals reflects the relative changes in the transfer of power between the two terms according to the principle of collective leadership and the role of the General Secretary.

The paper analyzes the structure and characteristics of the new power apparatus and the “four pillars” change, focusing on two positions of General Secretary and the new Prime Minister, to point out prospects and challenges in the context of the severe and widespread COVID-19 pandemic.

New power apparatus

The Party’s most powerful body Central Committee consists of 200 members with 180 official members and 20 alternative ones. Analysis of the specific position of power of each Central Committee shows the following main characteristics: First, the percentage of members in the police and the army dominates in the Central Committee in general, the Politburo and the Secretariat in particular; second, the proportion of “technocratic” leaders, which are necessary for the market economy, drastically changed in the top crew of the prime minister and deputy PM decreased in number in the Politburo compared to the previous term. The moves to rotate cadres with the tendency of “technocrat” to hold part-time positions of the party are still continuing, like the Minister of Industry and Trade Tran Tuan Anh just received the decision to assign it to the head of the Central Economic Commission; third, the ten “special cases” that break the age and term limits set forth in the Party’s Charter for the position of General Secretary reflect the balance of power between the “collective leadership” and role of the General Secretary.

This result reflects the process of screening cadres according to the policy of party reorganization, in which the hallmark of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s high mark during the 12th term. This process was motivated by the anti-corruption campaign “no forbidden zone” to centralize party power and be “accelerated” in 2018, when organizing the party congress at all levels, especially at the provincial, city, and equivalent levels, from there number and structure of delegates to attend the 13th National Congress. Each congress directly under the central government was under the direction of at least one member of the 12th Politburo.

However, the transfer of power, including the “four pillars“, continues to be tense until the “last minute.” The plan of senior personnel and “special cases,” including the position of General Secretary, can only be defined at the 15th Plenum of the 12th Central Committee before the 13th National Congress.

The position of General Secretary

Admittedly, in the totalitarian party regime, the head is the real issue, as this is a position of near-absolute power although “collective leadership” remains the principal. Although he has an important role in leadership and direction, maintaining power is not only due to personal qualities and abilities, but also depends on the political system and power relations in the context of unforeseen scenes. The issue of “good leader” is always posed for the centralized regime, but “not a small part” of “degrading” officials pose the greatest challenge of power transfer, including the choice of succeeding Party Secretary-General.

General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at the press conference to end the 13th National Congress in Hanoi on Feb 1

Since the Doi Moi (Renovation) in 1986, Vietnam has always faced this political problem. Late General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh, who was said to have initiated the reform policy, was elected at the 6th National Congress (for the 1986-1991 term). Late General Secretary Do Muoi, previously in the position of Chairman of the Council of Ministers (prime minister), was elected at the 7th Congress. He continued a year of the 8th term (1996-2001), then transferred to late General Secretary Le Kha Phieu, who previously held the head position of the army General Political Department and with army Lieutenant General rank. In the next two-term 9th and 10th, Mr. Nong Duc Manh held the position of General Secretary for 10 years (2001-2011). Before that, he was the chairman of the 10th National Assembly. Next, as is known, Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong is currently the General Secretary of the 13th term, before that he was also the chairman of the National Assembly for 10 years in the two tenures 11th and 12th (2002-2011), then held the position of General Secretary for two consecutive 5-year terms (2011-2021).

This process of power transfer shows that a position in the “four pillars” still has the age limit and term is always a more sure candidate for the position of General Secretary and, recently, has a clear advantage as the parliament chairman. This is a position that is said to be able to “easily” balance the interests of power “faction” and capable of getting consensus according to the principles of collective leadership. However, the institutional crisis in the 11th and 12th terms broke the above “convention” and, “special cases” as a result of unavoidable heavy consequences. Whether the leaked information about the former standing member of the 12th Secretariat, although was introduced, without the consent of the Politburo, can be confirmed by this logic and through the “disclosure” of the General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong that “in spite of the old age and weakness, but once the Congress elected, he has to obey …” In the immediate future, the preparation of a successor during or after the 13th term is still an open question for speculation about the position of the next 15th National Assembly chairman, whether there is the only “precedent” when converging the “untold rule” that the general secretary is for a northerner who has a theory and leadership experience?

New Prime Minister

The Prime Minister, according to some, may not be of real concern as this is a position without real power. In principle, the prime minister has limited influence in setting the general policy framework, but plays an important role in the implementation of policies, especially in the context of the economic-to-market transition. The Party said that the institutional instability of the previous term was caused by a “no small part” of officials’ deterioration and severe corruption. Former Prime Minister of the 11th term has accepted responsibility as head for the mistakes in operating the economy.

The main objective reason is the slow political institutional reform to match the transition of the economy to the market. However, the subjective cause is “self-transformation” and “self-development” of officials is considered the Party mainly, so the General Secretary’s regular “vigilance” towards the bureaucratic division who manage economic practice and abuse power for corruption that has become prejudice.

Pham Minh Chinh, who is expected to hold the position of Prime Minister

Most prime ministers during the Doi Moi period, from Mr. Vo Van Kiet to Mr. Nguyen Xuan Phuc, used to experience the position of deputy prime minister, but now have changed the “turning point.” According to leaked information, Mr. Pham Minh Chinh was “assigned” to hold the position of the new Prime Minister for the 13th term and the formalization is still waiting for a decision of the 15th National Assembly, scheduled to meet in mid-2021 after the upcoming election takes place. According to the source above, incumbent Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, one of the two “special cases” of the Politburo, remains in the “four pillars” as State President – a more symbolic position than the real power.

According to his personal biography, Mr. Pham Minh Chinh, head of the Central Organizing Committee, has been trained in technical expertise in Romania, used to hold the position of deputy minister of Public Security and then party’s Secretary of Quang Ninh Province. He’s planning to be Prime Minister of the 13th term is very important to the Party, not only because of his assertiveness, capacity, and experience in management, including the project of Special Economic-Administrative Region and Grassroots Democracy but also because of the symbolism of the Party’s own planning plan.

Some foreign observers believe that Nguyen Xuan Phuc should continue to hold the position of Prime Minister because the government’s initiative to construct and personally implement pragmatic policies has led to success in economic growth and anti-pandemic in the context of the world crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic…. However, individual imprints are not only undervalued but can also have the opposite effect on the collectivism that is the foundation of the regime. Anyone who becomes the next prime minister is bound to abide by this principle. Therefore, the new policy may be expected, but it must be the product of collective leadership.

The “noisy” in power transfer in general and of the “four pillars” in particular has also temporarily subsided after the Congress 13. Relative equilibrium is also gradually established by a specific counterbalance mechanism between “Collective leadership” and the role of General Secretary, although only temporary, but has decided the structure of the current centralized power apparatus. And the biggest challenge is how the direction and reform policy will continue to fight corruption, promote economic growth, narrow the rich-poor gap, and limit social injustice to maintain party and regime legitimacy in the context of uncertainty caused by the world economic crisis affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Translated)


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