Vietnam President’s Ouster Sparks Fears of Political Turmoil

Vietnam President's Ouster Sparks Fears of Political Turmoil

Vietnam President's Ouster Sparks Fears of Political Turmoil

Vo Van Thuong has become the second president of Vietnam to step down in the last two years following a significant anti-corruption campaign that has led to the downfall of numerous high-ranking officials in the Southeast Asian country.

Vietnam one-party, Communist system used to be known for its stability. However, President Vo Van Thuong’s sudden resignation on Wednesday, after just a year in office, highlights the growing political turmoil in Hanoi.

The Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee gathered on Wednesday to accept Thuong’s resignation due to “violations” and “shortcomings,” as officially stated by the Communist Party.

The resignation was later ratified by the country’s parliament on Thursday.

For weeks, many observers had been anticipating his departure.

Thuong now joins the ranks of the second president to resign in the past two years, amidst a significant anti-corruption campaign that has brought down numerous high-ranking officials in the Southeast Asian nation.

Over the last 18 months, authorities have compelled two presidents, two deputy prime ministers, and another Politburo member to step down. The 2021 National Congress reduced the Politburo from 18 to 14 members, marking its smallest size in recent memory.

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What caused the president’s downfall?

Vietnam President's Ouster Sparks Fears of Political Turmoil

The president’s downfall is believed to be linked to the investigations surrounding the real estate company Phuc Son Group, which is facing allegations of corruption in Quang Ngai province. During Thuong’s tenure as party chief from 2011 to 2014, the firm is said to have engaged in corrupt practices.

Reports indicate that a relative of Thuong accepted a €2 million ($2.18 million) bribe from the real estate group. As a result, authorities arrested the current People’s Committee chairman of Quang Ngai province, Dang Van Minh, and the former chairman, Cao Khoa, in early March in connection with the scandal.

Last year, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the president before Thuong, stepped down due to “violations and wrongdoing” committed by officials under his supervision, believed to be related to corruption during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Upon assuming office, Thuong vowed to combat corruption as part of the “blazing furnace” anti-graft campaign initiated by Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party.

Trong took over as party chief in 2012 but solidified his authority in 2016 after defeating his main rival, former prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, at the National Congress that year.

Dung’s association with a faction within the Communist Party, perceived to tolerate corruption as a means of maintaining party unity, while also moving away from socialist principles, was frequent.

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Why are there concerns about political instability?

Trong, who has dedicated most of his career to the Communist Party’s theoretical wing, has been working to bring ideology and “socialist ethics” back to the forefront of politics. He has also initiated a large anti-corruption campaign that has led to the downfall of many of the country’s most influential politicians.

Although this campaign has helped clean up politics to some extent, it has also disrupted the norms and stabilizing mechanisms of Vietnam repressive and hierarchical one-party system, resulting in increased instability.

Since the 1990s, the Communist Party has operated by adhering to a set of unwritten and codified rules, such as a two-term limit for senior politicians, a retirement age of 65, and a separation of powers among the country’s four main political positions.

In 2018, Trong disregarded the latter rule by temporarily assuming the role of president in addition to being the party chief, following the sudden death of the incumbent head of state.

Three years later, he managed to secure an almost unprecedented third term as general secretary despite being 77 years old at the time, well beyond the typical retirement age.

However, rumors circulated in January about his health after he failed to make a public appearance for several weeks, leading to speculation that he may have suffered a stroke in 2019.

Trong’s decision to boost the party chief’s authority and strengthen the power of a select group of loyalists has raised the stakes for the upcoming political succession. With Trong expected to step down at the next National Congress in 2026, his successor will wield more influence than previous general secretaries.

According to Tuong Vu, a professor and director at the US-Vietnam Research Center, Trong’s actions, combined with his health issues, have created uncertainty surrounding the succession process. This uncertainty has led to a power struggle among different factions vying for key positions in the next Congress, impacting the regime’s stability.

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Is the timing suspicious?

Though Thuong resigned due to alleged corruption during his tenure as the party chief of Quang Ngai province nearly ten years ago, doubts have arisen about whether Communist Party leaders, who approved his appointment as president last year, were already aware of these allegations. This has led to speculation about the suspicious timing of his forced resignation.

According to Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, the fact that someone extensively investigated Thuong’s past suggests that there may have been political motivations behind his resignation.

Senior leaders within the Communist Party customarily discuss personnel decisions leading up to the next National Congress, expected to take place in the early months of 2026.

Now, they will have to select a replacement for Thuong as president. If the Communist Party adheres to its regulations that the new president must have completed a full term as a member of the Politburo, there are only five potential candidates. However, it is possible that the party may once again make exceptions to these rules.

Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute’s Vietnam Studies Program in Singapore, observed that Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and National Assembly Chair Vuong Dinh Hue are unlikely to show interest in the presidency due to its comparatively lower political power compared to their current positions.

Who has the potential to succeed Thuong?

To identify a potential successor to Thuong, one option could be To Lam, the influential minister of public security. If he were to become the president, it might be easier for him to obtain an exception to the age limit rule and run for the position of general-secretary in 2026.

However, taking on the presidency could limit his ability to effectively lead the anti-corruption campaign, which could potentially hinder his aspirations for the top job.

According to analysts, Truong Thi Mai, a standing member of the Communist Party’s Secretariat, Trong, or someone lower in the hierarchy could likely assume the presidency. This decision will also have implications for who will succeed Trong as the general secretary in 2026, a matter that has contributed to Vietnam political instability.

Thuong was identified as one of the five eligible candidates to succeed Trong, as pointed out by Abuza. As a result of his resignation, there are now only four remaining candidates.

Nevertheless, Hiep mentioned that Prime Minister Chinh is facing his own corruption allegations, while Mai possesses a “relatively weak power base.”

This situation positions To Lam, who leads the anti-corruption campaign, as the frontrunner. This has led some to speculate that the public security minister may have played a role in the downfall of his colleagues.

According to Vu from the University of Oregon, “To Lam clearly had a hand in the resignation of Vo Van Thuong, and before him, Nguyen Xuan Phuc.”

He further added, “The anti-corruption campaign has enabled To Lam to accumulate personal power, making him the highly probable successor to Trong if he decides to step down at the next Congress.”

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