What exactly happened to Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong?

Two deputy prime ministers, two presidents and another Politburo member have been dismissed since December 2022.
A commentary by Zachary Abuza
2024.03.24
What exactly happened to Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong?
Illustration by Amanda Weisbrod/RFA; Photos by AFP and Adobe Stock

On March 20, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam voted to accept the resignation of President Vo Van Thuong, capping the spectacular downfall of a once-promising new leader that underscores the risks of Hanoi’s anti-corruption campaign. 

The following day, an extraordinary session of the National Assembly accepted his resignation but failed to elect his successor. Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan will serve as the acting president until the National Assembly elects a president. 

There’s no sign that Thuong will be the last scalp in an anti-corruption campaign that has toppled a slew of senior leaders in the one-party state in recent years.

The dismissal of two deputy prime ministers, two presidents and one other Communist Party of Vietnam Politburo member, as well as other ministers and former ministers, since December 2022 undermines Vietnam’s selling point of political stability and rattled markets. 

Rumors of Thuong’s downfall began on March 14, when the Netherlands announced the postponement of a March 19-22 visit by the Dutch royal couple at the request of the Vietnamese government “due to internal circumstances.”

Word quickly emerged that Thuong had submitted his resignation to the ruling party Politburo. 

He is the fourth Politburo member forced to resign since December 2022, bringing the number of members down to 14, the smallest since the Doi Moi economic reform era began in 1986.

Spilling tea on corrupt officials

Thuong has been described by some academics as the party’s ideologue. While he held ideological positions within the party, he was no ideologue. 

It’s true that before becoming the president in March 2023, following the ouster of Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Thuong chaired the Central Committee’s Propaganda and Education Commission, as well as heading the Central Council on Political Thought, a brain trust of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.

But that was a mid-career reinvention in part to burnish his credentials. He’s not the party ideologue nor apparatchik that some claimed.

From 2011-2014, Thuong was the party chief of Quang Ngai province, before moving to Ho Chi Minh City in 2014. He served as the deputy party chief under Le Thanh Hai, better known as the godfather of Ho Chi Minh City. Little happened in terms of the region’s economic and real estate development without his knowledge and approval.

Vietnam's then-President Vo Van Thuong looks on during a meeting in Hanoi on April 21, 2023. (Nhac Nguen/AFP)
Vietnam's then-President Vo Van Thuong looks on during a meeting in Hanoi on April 21, 2023. (Nhac Nguen/AFP)

Despite his leadership role in the freewheeling south, Thuong was brought to Hanoi, in large part, to spill the tea on corrupt party officials, as the central government moved to reassert control. 

In 2016, Thuong was appointed to the Central Committee’s Propaganda and Education Commission. He was elevated to the Politburo in 2020, and joined the Secretariat, which is in charge of the party’s day-to-day operations, in 2021. 

Thuong was clearly being groomed for bigger things. Born in 1970, Thuong was the youngest person on the Politburo, and many pundits had tipped him as being a possible successor to Nguyen Phu Trong as general secretary at the 14th Congress, expected to be held in early 2026. He was also the only southerner amongst the senior leadership.

For a party that is out of touch with Vietnamese youth, choosing a younger general secretary has a certain logic. Even if passed over at the 14th, Thuong would have been well positioned to take over the party at the 15th Congress. In short, his fall is quite spectacular. 

Who brought Thuong down and why?

So who wanted Thuong gone and why? After all, he was often described as a young protege of the powerful party chief, which should have accorded him some protection.  

It’s worth noting that Thuong’s resignation was the result of an investigation dating back to his time in Quang Ngai, from 2011-14, which shows just how far back rivals are willing to dig. 

All eyes quickly fell on Minister of Public Security To Lam.

Politburo member Gen. To Lam, right, poses with other members of the Vietnam Communist Party's Central Committee in Hanoi on Jan.  28, 2016. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP)
Politburo member Gen. To Lam, right, poses with other members of the Vietnam Communist Party's Central Committee in Hanoi on Jan. 28, 2016. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP)

When the Politburo elected Thuong president in February 2023, not everyone was happy, least of all Lam who may have seen the presidency as a path to whitewashing his own scandals, including being filmed in celebrity chef Salt Bae’s London restaurant eating $1000 gold encrusted steaks after placing a wreath at the grave of Karl Marx.

In April 2023, four Vietnam Airlines flight attendants were arrested in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhut airport for smuggling 11 kilograms (22 pounds) of illegal narcotics. One was rumored to be Thuong’s niece. 

In a country known for the quick dispatch of the death penalty for drug offenses, all four stewardesses were quickly released with a slap on the wrist. The message to Thuong could not have been more clear.

Since Lam’s own scandals appeared to preclude him from contention to be the next general secretary, the presidency would extend his political lifespan, especially if he could ensure that his protege, Deputy Minister of Public Security Luong Tan Quang, succeeded him.  

Lam goes after his own rivals

His predecessor, Tran Dai Quang, after all, continued to keep an office in the security ministry despite becoming president in 2016. Lam expected to continue to wield influence over the powerful ministry in order to keep rivals in check and protect his family’s growing corporate empire.

For years,Trong used Lam and the security ministry to target rival faction members. Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who challenged Trong for the general secretaryship in 2021, was ousted in February 2023. Other leaders tied to former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung have been systematically taken down. 

Increasingly, Lam dispatched his own rivals. 

Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, left, and Vietnam's then-Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc attend the ASEAN summit via video, in Hanoi on Nov. 12, 2020. (Nhac Nguyen/AFP)
Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, left, and Vietnam's then-Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc attend the ASEAN summit via video, in Hanoi on Nov. 12, 2020. (Nhac Nguyen/AFP)

With Thuong’s dismissal, there are now only three other eligible replacements among members of the Politburo under existing party rules: Secretariat chief Truong Thi Mai, National Assembly Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue, and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh.  

Mai is competent, has broad-based experience, and is relatively clean. But Mai’s already amassed unprecedented power for a woman in the male-dominated world of Vietnamese politics. At 65, she’s also hinted that she has little interest in serving another five-year term. 

Chinh has had numerous corruption investigations surrounding him and has already had to write a self-criticism. Hue is rumored to be under investigation. Should Hue be forced to resign, that would leave Lam as the last man standing. 

The media widely pinned Lam as the likely next president, viewing it as a stepping stone to becoming party chief in 2026. But that is unnecessary and begs the question, why would Lam want the presidency?

‘Four Pillars’

Too often the presidency is described as being a ceremonial post. But it’s one of the “Four Pillars” of the collective leadership, and should the president choose to wield his authority and influence, especially through his patronage networks, it can be a powerful position, as Le Duc Anh (1992-1997) and Truong Tan Sang (2011-2016) proved.  

Nonetheless, the minister of public security has something the presidency doesn’t have: investigative powers. In short, Lam doesn’t need the presidency as a stepping stone to become general secretary if that’s his goal. He can use his current position to keep his rivals on the defensive.

While it’s possible that the National Assembly wouldn’t endorse Lam for the presidency, it’s more likely that he was unable to secure the promotion of his deputy, Luong Tan Quang, to the Politburo, a requirement to become minister. Ergo, the presidency remains in the hands of Vice President Xuan.

Vietnam’s Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan is seen at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2023. (Minh Hoang/AP)
Vietnam’s Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan is seen at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2023. (Minh Hoang/AP)

We also need to consider an alternative, that someone else brought Thuong down to force Lam into the presidency. 

If Lam was forced out of the security ministry, while his hand-picked successor gets passed over, he would be politically vulnerable to corruption charges.

With the Politburo now down to a decades-low 14 members, repeated central committee plenums since early 2023 have failed to elect replacements, an indication of factional deadlocks. 

Planning for the 14th Party Congress is already underway, with two preparatory sessions on documents and personnel held in February and March. 

Having weaponized anti-corruption, Trong is suddenly unable to contain the campaign, taking down rivals and proteges alike.

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 Radio Free Asia.

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