Vietnam is a country with an authoritarian and non-democratic regime, led solely by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Yet, unlike other authoritarian models of governments often spearheaded by one centralized figure such as Xi Jinping in China, Vietnam’s model of government differs vastly, following a principle of democratic centralism and collective leadership. Within the party’s inner mechanisms is a modicum of democracy: an array of checks and balances and a bustling network of legislative bodies. However, over the recent years these checks and balances have been eroding, much of which is due to the actions of Vietnam’s newly re-elected President and Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong, as he has sought to consolidate his own power.
In late January of 2021, Trong had been re-elected to a third term by the National Assembly in Hanoi. Normally, Vietnamese presidents are limited to two terms in office, and are also expected to retire at the age of 65; however, the rules were amended so that Trong—who is 76 years of age—could be re-nominated. Initially, Trong intended to step down due to his age and poor health (Paddock 2021), and had appointed a subordinate but unpopular successor, Tran Quoc Vuong, who was then rejected by the Central Committee—the main governing body within the Communist Party. Thus, Trong decided to stay on for a rare third term, breaking the rules of eligibility in order to maintain a foothold in Vietnamese politics (2021). Trong has represented a sect of conservative political thought within the Marxist-Leninist ideology underlying the basis of Vietnam. Since he first entered office in 2016, Trong has overseen a massive anti-corruption campaign which has led to a sharp increase in the arrests and imprisonment of political figures and activists, as well as in the length of prison sentences for those arrested for dissent.
As a result of political reforms that took place in the 1980s, Vietnam has followed a model of collective leadership, which entails cooperation between what is known as the “Four Pillars”: the president, the prime minister, the chief of the Communist Party, and the chair of the National Assembly. This model was designed to disperse executive power among the four officials, rather than centralizing the power into one authoritarian figure. But following the death of Vietnam’s former Party Chief Tran Dai Quang in 2018, Trong was elected by the National Assembly to hold both the title of President and Party Chief simultaneously (Schuler and Truong 2019). Bermeo (2016) dissects the ways in which democratic backsliding manifests, decaying the political institutions within an existing democracy. Although Vietnam is not a democracy, Trong’s occupation of half of the Four Pillars is a shining example of executive aggrandizement taking place.
Schuler and Truong (2019) discuss the various perspectives on what this election could imply. Although the extension of Trong’s term is unprecedented for these times, it has not been the first instance that a president has suspended electoral rules. Many believe that this will not bring substantive change to current politics, namely because the president plays a symbolic role, usually counterbalanced by the other members of the Four Pillars. However, Trong has effectively secured half of the Pillars with his assumption of the roles of both the President and Chief of the CPV—meaning Trong’s power is much more than symbolic. Moreover, others believe that Trong’s presidency, especially given his actions, marks the end of the waning conservative political faction in Vietnamese politics, giving way to a more pragmatic politician to take power in the future (2019). But Trong’s administration has shown patterns of authoritarianism and centralization akin to that of Xi Jinping’s model of leadership in China (2019). Key figures under Trong’s government such as Pham Minh Chinh, the presumed next prime minister, intend to carry through initiatives that were rejected in previous years due to a lack of consensus within the National Assembly, such as the elimination of People’s Councils—local legislative bodies that operate on the district level throughout Vietnam. As such, the political climate in Vietnam is arguably changing, showing a trend of democratic backsliding as political institutions within Vietnam are dissolved and streamlined (Bermeo 2016).
To many, Trong’s actions represent a sharp break from the style of governance in Vietnam that arose out of the Doi Moi reforms in 1986, which transformed the Vietnamese economy and ushered in an unprecedented degree of stability. In his crusade against corruption, Trong has been criticized for suppressing political dissent, and as such, his calls to stamp out corruption are perceived as superficial and self-aggrandizing, as the Communist Party management under Trong has become more and more synonymous with the Vietnamese government itself. Moreso, Trong has sparked controversy through targeting many high-profile members of the Communist Party in his corruption purge, including La Thang, a member of the Politburo—the 15-member executive board of the Central Committee—and secretary of Ho Chi Minh City’s local Communist Party. Thang’s arrest marks the first time a member of the Politburo has faced a trial and substantial prison sentence (Schuler and Truong 2019).
Schuler and Truong (2019) further insinuate that Trong is unlikely to embody the same characteristics as other authoritarian figures such as Xi in China, or Nicholas Maduro in Venezuela, due to his age and ideology. However, given his consolidation of power through the manipulation of constitutional norms, his actions set a dangerous precedent that threatens the Four Pillars model of collective leadership which has aimed to guide Vietnam away from tyranny in the future as a young Socialist Republic.
Bermeo, N. (2016, January). “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27(1): 5-19
Lan, H. (2020, April 28). General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong selects his “successor”. Thoibao.de. https://thoibao.de/blog/2020/04/28/general-secretary-nguyen-phu-trong-selects-his-successor/
Nguyen, H. (2021, January 22). Vietnam Leadership Transition Will Not Loosen the Party’s Grip. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/01/vietnam-leadership-transition-will-not-loosen-the-partys-grip/
Paddock, R. (2021, February 1). Term Limits? Not for Vietnam’s Hard-Line Communist Leader. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/01/world/asia/vietnam-party-congress.html
Pearson, J. (2021, January 31). Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam’s anti-corruption czar, crowned party chief again. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-politics-trong-idUSKBN2A006T
Reuters Staff. (2021, January 26). Vietnam’s Communist Party chief nominated for re-election: state media. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-politics-congress/vietnams-communist-party-chief-nominated-for-re-election-state-media-idUSKBN29W0DS
Schuler, P. (2021, March 1). Pham Minh Chinh’s potential to shape Vietnam’s political system. East Asia Forum. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2021/03/01/pham-minh-chinhs-potential-to-shape-vietnams-political-system/
Schuler, P., & Truong, M. (2019, February 22). “Leadership Reshuffle and the Future of Vietnam’s Collective Leadership.” Yusof Ishak Institute 2019(9): 1-7
Tuan, H. A. (n.d.). Doi Moi and the Remaking of Vietnam. Global Asia. https://www.globalasia.org/v4no3/cover/doi-moi-and-the-remaking-of-vietnam_hong-anh-tuan
This was at once a fascinating and disheartening read, Alejandro. I’ve studied and written a few papers about China’s intra-party democratization efforts in the 1990s and 2000s only for them to be rolled back by Xi Jinping’s administration. Reading about what has happened in Vietnam mirrors the dismantling of nascent democracy in China. In the Chinese context, I found that when the Communist Party faced a crisis of legitimacy and anger from the populace, it was followed by a spike in regime personalization and consolidation of power into the hands of one or a small cabal of leaders. There was a spike after Tiananmen Square when the Party had to manage the fallout of that incident, but it receded as China’s economy opened up and the country became wealthier. The second recent spike occurred in 2012 when the public was tired of corrupt officials and factional conflicts broke out in the Party over how to handle the outcry, ultimately resulting in Xi Jinping’s presidency. Based on the Vietnamese case, it seems like launching anti-corruption drives are a common tactic in authoritarians seeking to expand their power. In China, the discontent originated with the general populace and precipitated the factional battle in the CCP. I’d be curious to hear your insights on how this arose in Vietnam. Does the Vietnamese populace generally support Trong or has he achieved his position entirely through political maneuvering?