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Vietnam’s Dive into Uncharted Waters: An Analysis by The Diplomat

This month Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong failed to make an appearance during the recent visits of the Lao prime minister and Indonesian president. This gave rise to intense speculation in the Western media that Trong is seriously ill and is being treated in hospital. While Trong subsequently appeared at a National Assembly meeting on January 15, in apparent good health, his prolonged absence raised the question of what Vietnam might do in the event of his incapacitation before the end of his term as party leader. Trong’s absence gave rise to three plausible scenarios: (1) Trong is unable to resume full-time official duties due to health reasons; (2) Trong is physically incapacitated and unable to carry out any official duties; and (3) Trong passes away. Who would assume the responsibilities of party leader under each scenario? Trong is currently serving his third five-year term as party leader. His term will expire in early 2026 when the CPV’s 14th National Congress is expected to be held. One of the duties of the party general secretary is to recommend his successor, subject to the approval of the Central Committee. Last year, Trong was appointed head of the Personnel Committee to vet nominees for the Central Committee and other high-level party posts to be elected in 2026. The next general secretary must first be elected to the new Central Committee by delegates to the 14th National Congress. The new Central Committee will then elect the new Politburo and among its members the next general secretary.

Scenario One: If Trong were at any point unable to resume full-time official duties due to health reasons, but was able to consult occasionally, the Politburo could decide to maintain the status quo and let Trong serve out the remainder of his term. This option would follow the precedent set when State President Tran Dai Quang fell ill and was retained in office until his death. Scenario Two: If Trong were to be incapacitated and unable to resume official duties, the Politburo would have to nominate a successor for approval by the Central Committee. Trong’s successor could be a caretaker (or to use a cricket term “night watchman”), who would serve out the remaining term of office but not seek election for a full five-year term. Scenario Three: If Trong should pass away while in office, the Politburo would have to immediately nominate a successor subject to approval by the Central Committee.

There is ongoing discussion within CPV circles about raising the mandatory retirement age of 65 by two or three years. If this were promulgated it would expand the number of incumbent Politburo members eligible to stand for election as party general secretary from five to six (if raised by two years) to 10 (if raised by three years). There are potentially six likely candidates to replace General Secretary Trong under scenarios two and three discussed above. Scenario 2: Three senior members of the Politburo could serve as caretakers: Pham Minh Chinh, Vuong Dinh Hue, and Truong Thi Mai. Pham Minh Chinh is the most senior member of the Politburo after Trong. Vuong Dinh Hue appears the most qualified as two previous party leaders, Nong Duc Manh and Nguyen Phu Trong, served as chairman of the National Assembly before taking on the duties as party leader. Hue scored well in the National Assembly’s 2023 vote of confidence coming second with the most votes of high confidence. Appointing Chinh or Hue could be disruptive given that they are respectively the prime minister and chairman of the National Assembly Standing Committee. Truong Thi Mai is frequently mentioned as a likely candidate for the party’s leadership. She is currently the Permanent Member of the Secretariat and head of the CPV’s Central Organization Commission.


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