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Interview: Analyst Sees ‘Continuity’ in Vietnam As Party Chief Becomes President

Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (R), National Assembly's Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan (L) and soldiers carry the coffin of Vietnam's late President Tran Dai Quang out of the National Funeral House for procession during his funeral in Hanoi, Vietnam September 27, 2018. Tri Dung/VNA/Handout via REUTERS

[Editor’s Note: The National Assembly in Vietnam is set to convene on Monday to vote in Communist Party of Vietnam Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to succeed Tran Dai Quang who died last month, as president. Observers say the development will consolidate the power of an already-influential party chief. VOA Khmer’s Aun Chhengpor spoke with Vietnam expert Le Hong Hiep, research fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, to discuss the dynamics of this transition.]

VOA: What is your prediction for the vote at the National Assembly of Vietnam this Monday on the party chief’s presidential candidacy? Why?

Le Hong Hiep: The procedure in Vietnam is like this: when you want to elect a national leader, the party will discuss and nominate the candidate and introduce that candidate to the National Assembly. Because in Vietnam it’s a one-party system, the National Assembly, basically in most of the cases, will just rubber stamp the party’s decision. In this case, it is almost 100 percent certain that the National Assembly will elect Mr. Trong to the presidency as recommended by the party.

VOA: What will Nguyen Phu Trong’s presidency mean for Vietnam’s domestic politics and beyond?

Le Hong Hiep: I think the implication is not significant for now in both economic and political terms. Economically, the policies will remain unchanged even after Mr. Trong takes over the presidency. Politically, it depends on whether the new arrangement will last beyond 2021 when the party convenes its congress and elects new leadership. So far, Mr. Trong has indicated that he agreed to take over the presidency after the sudden death of Late President Tran Dai Quang. That means it’s unclear whether, at the next party’s congress, they will elect someone to hold both the party secretary and the state president positions as Mr. Trong is willing to do. And if they do, I think that will have some implications for Vietnam in the long-term economic and political situation. And that depends on who will be elected to succeed Mr. Trong. For now … I don’t think there will be significant implications for Vietnam’s political system.

VOA: Can we draw parallels between the Vietnam party chief Nguyen Phu Trong’s entry into the presidential office to what happened recently in China where President Xi Jinping swept to outright power by rewriting the constitution to pave way for his life-time rule?

Le Hong Hiep: I think it depends on what happens next after this because Mr. Trong is supposed to retire in 2021. If he tries to stay on beyond 2021 by, for example, changing the party’s constitution to expand the term limit because he has been holding this general-secretary position for two consecutive terms, and, according to the party’s regulation, he will not be able to hold another third term. If he tries to change the internal regulations to stay on for more terms, I think that’s quite a willing trend and he will try to emulate what Mr. Xi Jinping is doing in China.

But I think that possibility is quite low. I don’t think that he will have the ambition to emulate what Mr. Xi Jinping is doing in China. In Vietnam, the political system is more pluralistic and there is more emphasis on consensus-based decision-making. Even Mr. Trong is now holding two positions, he will still have to consult his politburo and the central committee for major decisions. Even at the next party’s congress, if Mr. Trong stays on or someone else is elected to hold both positions, that practice will still be maintained, and Mr. Trong himself and his successor is unlikely to be as powerful as Mr. Xi Jinping in China.

VOA: There was a known intra-party struggle between Nguyen Phu Trong and Former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung before the 2016 party congress. So will Nguyen Phu Trong weaken other factions within the party?

Le Hong Hiep: I think the power structure in Vietnam at the moment is much more consolidated than more than two years ago. As you mentioned, under the previous administration, there were some power struggles between Mr. Trong and Mr. Dung. But now, there is no major camp competing with Mr. Trong and his colleagues. Basically, there is virtually no opposition to Mr. Trong taking over the presidency. In fact, the party’s central committee voted unanimously to support Mr. Trong’s nomination. I don’t think there will be any internal fighting against Mr. Trong for now.​

Le Hong Hiep research fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. (Facebook)
Le Hong Hiep research fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. (Facebook)

VOA: Will this status quo remain the same at the 2021 party congress?

Le Hong Hiep: I think so. Even in the next few years, I think Mr. Trong will be able to consolidate his power and there will be no major opposition to his roles.

VOA: Domestic dissatisfaction was apparently evident in the recent riot nationwide against the decision of the 99-year development projects. Does a more powerful Nguyen Phu Trong have a chance to build more domestic confidence and legitimacy of the party?

Le Hong Hiep: The leadership and the national leadership in Vietnam is elected by the National Assembly, making it an indirect democracy, not direct democracy. So the people have virtually no voice and no say over the election of Mr. Trong. Most people will just observe the move. They don’t care so much about most of the developments. Of course, some people are concerned that the consolidation of power within the party will lead to more authoritarianism and more repression. But other people are also optimistic that the development will make the political system more efficient and the party will be able to fight corruption and deliver economic growth that will ultimately benefit the people.

VOA: Is it important for a candidate for national leadership like Nguyen Phu Trong to be popular among Vietnamese people?

Le Hong Hiep: Yes, I think it’s as important as in any country whether the leader is seen capable and clean. The reputation you have have will have an impact on the people’s perception regarding that leadership as well as the government and the ruling party. In Vietnam now, I think many people have some respect for Mr. Trong with his reputation and ability to undertake a very intensive anti-corruption campaign so far. I think most people expect him to do more after he has been able to consolidate his power and nominated to hold both positions.

VOA: Some observers of Vietnam would describe Nguyen Phu Trong as a “hardliner”. Why do you think he has been described so?

Le Hong Hiep: That’s understandable because Mr. Trong is the party secretary – the party’s head – and his main job is to maintain the party’s rule and survival. Without sometimes hardline policies, he would not be able to play his part or do his job. Normally in most communist countries, the party heads will be more conservative and will have a more hardline position on political issues. Meanwhile, the prime minister will have a more liberal tendency because he is tasked to promote economic reform and economic growth that he tends to be more liberal.

VOA: Can we expect any change to Vietnam’s foreign policy or neighborhood policy under Nguyen Phu Trong’s presidency?

Le Hong Hiep: I think there will be no change. Vietnam will likely maintain its current foreign policy. I think that there is consensus within the top leadership as to how to deal with China and the U.S. This is not the foreign policy of Mr. Trong, but is the foreign policy of the party. And I think Vietnam will maintain its current foreign policy under Mr. Trong’s presidency.

Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.