In a widely rumoured development, the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) announced today that President Nguyen Xuan Phuc would be leaving his position, effective immediately. Vietnam has no paramount ruler and is officially led by four “pillars”: the party’s secretary, the president, the prime minister, and the speaker of the house. It is the first time a member of the CPV’s top leadership, known as the “four pillars,” has resigned early and is the highest official targeted by the party’s latest accountability crackdown.
The official press release stated that as prime minister from 2016-2021, Phuc led extraordinary efforts in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic but was also responsible for “letting several officials, including two deputy prime ministers and three ministers, commit violations that caused severe consequences.” It goes on to point out that Phuc was “well aware of his responsibilities” and as such has “decided to resign from his positions and retire”.
This shake-up raises important questions about the current state of Vietnamese politics and the potential impact of Phuc’s resignation on the country’s domestic and foreign policies.
Many political analysts have been speculating about Phuc’s resignation after the two deputy prime ministers who worked under him when he was in charge of the government were dismissed earlier this month. Some observers have pointed to the ongoing Viet A Technology Corporation case as a possible reason. The case has been a major scandal and has implicated many high-ranking officials in the country, including former Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long and other leading figures who were expelled from the CPV. Over the past year, more and more officials have been caught up in the case; at least 102 people have been arrested so far.
These recent developments seem to indicate a new pattern in which the CPV is holding leaders accountable for their violations while allowing them to resign with grace and honour in order to protect the prestige of the party as a whole.
Less Accountability through Resignation?
General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s “blazing furnace” anti-corruption campaign now becomes more significant through this “culture of resignation”. In particular, Trong was recently quoted as saying that those members who voluntarily resign and repay evidence of the corrupt payments, “will be lightly handled or even exempted from punishment. It is not good to have all severely punished, or to remove all from office.”
This shift in policy demonstrates the CPV’s willingness to take a more nuanced approach to address corruption within the party. However, it is important to note that while this policy change might offer more flexibility within the party’s hierarchy, the vague terms of these “punishments” may have unintended effects, such as less accountability and transparency to the public. This then would perhaps not be a suitable long-term response to the growing public concern of corruption within the Vietnamese state, rather it may only build a wall between the government and citizens.
Potential Immediate Implications of Phuc’s Resignation
One potential impact is the possibility of a power struggle within the CPV. At time of writing, it is unclear who will replace Phuc as the new president, although Nguyen Phu Trong now stands a healthy chance of being so. If so, he could draw inspiration from Xi Jinping and combine the roles of president and general secretary, which would lead to a united front for efficient decision-making in a time of political crisis. However, this may be argued to be a hindrance on the basis of legitimacy and may instead promote a more authoritarian regime, which would not sit well with Vietnam’s foreign investors as a source of concern.
Alternatively, there may be an entire reshuffle of government officials and another member may be promoted to the post of president. This will bring new perspectives to an otherwise old-guard institution but the transition may pose some challenges as different factions and alliances adjust to the new leadership. This may further cripple the country’s political stability and may affect the government’s ability to effectively govern, reminiscing the ongoing situation in Malaysia.
On the issue of foreign policies, Phuc’s well-established relationships with the United States and other Western nations will notably be a cause of anxiety as advisors try to understand the new political balance within the country. This may cause a dip in foreign investments and will be a cause for concern as Vietnam continues to navigate the ongoing global recession. Despite being one of the best-performing economies in Southeast Asia in 2022, the export-dependent country is vulnerable to global market conditions such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s cost-of-living crisis, and China’s market reopening. However, Vietnam as a one-party state means that the government’s actions are closely tied to the agenda of the CPV and as such, it is unlikely there will be a significant deviation in foreign relations, albeit a little uncertainty for the time being.
As observers, the current climate is a great opportunity to take a more in-depth look at Vietnam’s political landscape, and understand the changes and challenges that the country is facing; not just on a domestic level, but as a rising beacon within Southeast Asia.