When the Vietnamese national football team scored the opening goal at the finals of the ASEAN Football Federation Mitsubishi Electric Cup, on Jan. 13, it was all smiles between President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, but it belied intense political infighting.
Phuc is an ardent fan, always in attendance at games of the national squad. But unbeknownst to anyone watching, the match was likely to be his last public appearance as president.
Earlier that day, at yet another unscheduled Communist Party of Vietnam Politburo meeting, Phuc resigned, culminating an intense period of political upheaval that has seen two deputy prime ministers, including a politburo member, resign in the past two weeks.
The Central Committee accepted Phuc’s resignation on Tuesday, and it will be confirmed by the National Assembly on Wednesday.
Who is Nguyen Xuan Phuc?
Phuc, 68, had served as president since the 13th Party Congress in January 2021. From 2011-2016, he was the deputy prime minister, before being elevated at the 12th Party Congress in early 2016. As prime minister, Phuc oversaw a period of spectacular economic growth. During his tenure, GDP grew by 42 percent from $257 billion to $366 billion. Phuc was known and trusted by foreign investors and leaders. More importantly, his leadership during the COVID scandal allowed Vietnam to post the only positive economic growth in ASEAN in 2021.
At the 13th Congress two years ago, Phuc vied to become the general secretary, but did not have sufficient support. Outgoing General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, 78, was unable to garner support for his heir apparent, Tran Quoc Vuong, who led the CPV’s Central Inspection Commission, in charge of investigating high-level corruption. The politburo settled on Trong as a compromise, after uniting to not only deny Vuong the top job, but also to get him unelected from the country’s top decision-making body.
Although the presidency is largely a ceremonial role without significant institutional power, Phuc helped assuage the concerns of the foreign investors and the business community who had legitimate trepidation with the appointment of Pham Minh Chinh, 64, as prime minister.
Chinh was the first prime minister who had not served as a deputy prime minister, and had only limited economic experience, having served as a provincial party chief, following a career in the intelligence service of the Ministry of Public Security.
Why was Phuc ousted now?
Ostensibly Phuc was forced to resign due to high-level government corruption scandals, but this is a high-level power-play.
Phuc’s forced resignation is part of a larger power struggle in the run-up to the 14th Congress, to be held in January 2026. The mid-term party congress is expected to be held in mid-2023, a time that could see General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong finally resign, after receiving two age waivers.
Trong was determined to ensure that his heir apparent got the job this time.
According to party statutes, one can only be general secretary if they have served two terms on the politburo.
This meant that there were only six eligible candidates on the 18-person body: Phuc, Chinh, National Assembly chief Vuong Dinh Hue, Minister of Public Security To Lam, Vietnam Fatherland Front Chief Truong Thị Mai, and Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh.
Minh was forced off the Politburo last month, and was never a serious contender, seen as a pro-western and non-ideologue. Truong Thi Mai has the wrong chromosome. It had seemed unlikely that Lam would take over in the midst of a major anti-corruption campaign, given his own corruption scandals and business dealings.
Following the turmoil in government, caused by the forced resignations of two deputy prime ministers and potentially a third along with the foreign minister, there’s a need for stability. This points to Chinh remaining as prime minister. Foreign investors are rattled as political stability has been one of the country’s key selling points. Moreover, Chinh is tied to a fugitive business woman, who was just convicted in absentia in a bid-rigging scandal.
That left only two contenders: Phuc and Hue.
General Secretary Trong clearly mistrusts Phuc and the pro-western technocratic elite that he represents. Phuc’s family is also deeply ensconced in business, with multiple reports of corruption and cashing in on the family name. On Jan. 4 a businesswoman reported to be his wife’s niece was arrested, putting further pressure on the president to step down.
Phuc’s troubles leave Hue, currently the chairman of the National Assembly, and one of Trong’s proteges, as the general secretary by default.
Who will replace Phuc?
Lam, 65, will likely replace Phuc, becoming the 9th President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, should he be able to garner the requisite votes in the National Assembly Wednesday.
Lam has served as the public security chief since April 2016, running the country’s vast police and intelligence network. He has overseen an intensified campaign against independent journalists, on-line critics, and religious figures. He has accumulated an enormous amount of power and wealth.
Lam, however, will be term limited and forced to step down as minister by April. It appears therefore that he is seeking to emulate his predecessor, Tran Dai Quang.
Quang had also served two terms as the minister of public security before becoming president.
Quang, 61, died in September 2018, just over two years into his term, but he set a precedent for Lam: he was known to have continued to run the ministry from the presidency, and kept an office there.
Lam has every reason to hold onto power. He has his own corruption scandals and a family deeply enmeshed in business. Lam’s control of the powerful Ministry of Public Security gives him a near monopoly of investigative and prosecutorial power that he could deflect away from himself and train on his political rivals.
Should Lam not have sufficient support Wednesday, there are two options: the current vice president could become the acting president, or, more likely, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong would put on a second hat, and serve as the president until early 2026.
Although the presidency is largely ceremonial, it still matters for two reasons. First, Vietnam prides itself on its collective leadership, and it is one of the top four positions. Second, as head of state, the president has an important diplomatic role and is a face to international investors.
But the resignation of Phuc and potential elevation of Lam have more profound implications.
Politically, it is clear that the infighting ahead of the mid-term congress is intensifying. While I predicted Phuc would be ousted, I didn’t see it coming days before the Feb. 22 Lunar New Year holiday; that was too unseemly.
But this is bare knuckled politics, as elites seek to consolidate their wealth and power. The days of collective leadership are gone. This is an era of no holds rent-seeking, power accumulation, and avarice.
Moreover, with the ouster of Phuc, Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam–three of the country’s most competent leaders–Trong has effectively won the war against technocrats, and still maintained a degree of party unity.
Finally, two of the top four leaders would be from the public security ministry. Five members of the now 16-member politburo also came out of the ministry. If Senior Lieutenant General Luong Tam Quang is elected to the politburo, as is the historical norm following his expected election as the next minister of public security, then six of the 17 members would hail from the MPS. That is institutional capture and really tells you all you need to know about the regime’s priorities: security above all else.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or RFA.