Who is Vietnam’s Next President: Tran Quoc Vuong or Nguyen Thien Nhan?

Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang passed away in Hanoi last Friday, on 14 February. The National Assembly is scheduled to convene a plenary session in October to elect new President, country’s de facto No. 2. At present Mr. Tran Quoc Vuong, standing member of Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Secretariat, and Mr. Nguyen Thien Nhan, Party Secretary of Ho Chi Minh City are the most likely candidates. Some observers, however, say Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong, CPV’s General Secretary, Vietnam’s top leader, could concurrently assume the post of President, taking the control of both the CPV and the government, and making the leadership style more like that of China.

Mr. Vuong became in January 2016 a member of Politburo, the highest body of CPV in the National Congress. As Chairman of the Central Inspection Commission, Mr. Vuong led anti-corruption investigations under Mr. Trong’s “strike tigers and flies” campaign. His Commission uncovered illegal acts by Mr. Dinh La Thang during his chairmanship at Vietnam’s state oil firm PetroVietnam, and contributed to his arrest and imprisonment. The arrest of Mr. Thang, a close ally of former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, just gave another political blow against Mr. Dung, rival of Mr. Trong. Mr. Vuong, or “Vietnam’s Wang Qishan” as is called by some, became a standing member of CPV Secretariat last March by replacing Mr. Dinh The Huynh, who had been under medical treatment.

Another candidate Mr. Nhan, with a doctorate in Germany and a master’s in the US, has a long career in international academia, on the other hand, is not seen as a politically effective leader. He stays neutral among the Party’s factions, and his succession as the secretary of Ho Chi Minh City after Mr. Thang’s downfall is said to be the product of a compromise after intraparty power struggles.

As some observers speculate, should General Secretary Trong assume the presidency concurrently, it would be a historic development in Vietnam’s politics. After his re-election as General Secretary in the National Congress in January 2016, he successfully consolidated power through anti-corruption campaign against allies of former PM Dung and Ministry of Public Security, to which President Quang belonged. However, taking top two positions of “4 pillars (tu’ tru)” (General Secretary, President, Prime Minister, and National Assembly Chairperson) at the same time would inevitably cause strong opposition in the Party. Moscow-based Southeast Asia analyst Anton Tsvetov tweeted “Trong taking over as President would be a serious violation of the 2016 consensus, which was at least in part about maintaining the balance within the tu’ tru and sticking to collective leadership.”

With the death of Mr. Quang, who was once listed as a next General Secretary candidate, Mr. Trong will assumably further strengthen his power base. It is still to be seen which candidate, namely Mr. Trong himself, his close ally Mr. Vuong, or neutral Mr. Nhan would make his way to next President. The decision is expected to be made at the plenary session of Party Central Committee in early October and officially confirmed at the following National Assembly session.

(Akihide Mori, Vietnam watcher)