Vietnam leadership battle heats up after serial sackings narrow the field

Three candidates have emerged in the Communist Party's delicate succession process.
A commentary by Zachary Abuza
2024.05.01
Vietnam leadership battle heats up after serial sackings narrow the field Truong Thi Mai, To Lam, Pham Minh Chinh.
Illustration by Amanda Weisbrod / RFA; Images by AP, Wikicommons, Adobe Stock

The jockeying for leadership in Hanoi is underway – more than 18 months ahead of the Communist Party of Vietnam's 14th Party Congress, which is expected to be held in January 2026.  

Under party rules, to be eligible to serve as CPV General Secretary one has to have served two terms on the Politburo. With the forced resignations of Pham Binh Minh, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vo Van Thuong, and Vuong Dinh Hue since December 2022, that leaves only three candidates as eligible for the top job: Truong Thi Mai, Pham Minh Chinh, and To Lam.

General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong is in his third term. And while he may view himself as the only person who can rid the party of corruption, his age and health are impediments. 

He suffered a stroke prior to the 13th Congress in 2021. Rumors swirled about his death in January. Although he showed up days later at a National Assembly session, the 80-year old ideologue was visibly frail.

With the party having held two planning sessions, one for documents and one for personnel, it’s worth looking at the three candidates and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, including drawbacks that may leave just one man standing.

Capable, experienced Mai

Truong Thi Mai is ranked third on the Politburo, and following National Assembly chief Vuong Dinh Hue’s expulsion last week, is expected to become the chairwoman of the legislature. She is the highest-ranked woman in Vietnamese history and has vast experience across party organs and in the National Assembly. 

Mai has been a member of the Central Committee since 2006, and was elected to the Politburo at the 12th Congress in 2016. 

Mai has vast experience in mass mobilization work, serving in leadership positions in two youth unions, before being promoted to head the Central Committee’s Mass Mobilization Commission. For a party that is increasingly seen as being out of touch and losing legitimacy amongst the youth, mobilization work is a priority. 

From 2016-2021, Mai served as a member of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly, which both leads the legislature and acts in its name when the body is out of  session.

Politburo member Truong Thi Mai, in red, stands on the podium at the closing ceremony of the Vietnamese Communist Party national congress in Hanoi, Jan. 28, 2016. (Hoang Dinh Nam/Pool Photo via AP)
Politburo member Truong Thi Mai, in red, stands on the podium at the closing ceremony of the Vietnamese Communist Party national congress in Hanoi, Jan. 28, 2016. (Hoang Dinh Nam/Pool Photo via AP)

At the 13th Party Congress, Mai headed the Central Committee’s Organization Commission, ostensibly the CPV’s HR department. In any communist system, the keeper of the nomenklatura (name list) is a key position that is responsible for all mid- and senior-level appointments. 

Mai was promoted to head the secretariat, which runs the party’s day-to-day affairs, in March 2023.

The 66-year old Mai is arguably the most capable and has the broadest based experience of the three candidates. But she’s a woman in the male-dominated world of Vietnamese politics. She’s also from Quang Binh in central Vietnam – in a party that so far has only selected northerners as general secretaries. 

Mai is comparatively clean. Though her family has holdings in the health sector, none of that has been publicly aired.

Having mostly served in party positions, Mai has less exposure to Western leaders, though she sat on Trong’s immediate right in the meeting with President Joe Biden last September. Mai also met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and her counterparts in Beijing in April 2023.

Well-traveled Chinh

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, ranked second, is the most recognizable of the senior leadership, regularly meeting with foreign officials and businessmen. 

Prior to politics, Chinh had a long career in the police. From 2006-2009, he was the deputy head of the Ministry of Public Security’s (MPS) General Intelligence Department, and then briefly the head of the General Department of Logistics and Technology. From 2010-2011, he served as a deputy minister. 

Chinh, who hails from the northern province of Thanh Hoa, served as the party secretary of Quang Ninh province from 2011-2015. He was elected to the Politburo at the 12th Congress in 2016, and served as the head of the Central Committee’s Organization Commission. 

At the 13th Congress, Chinh was selected to be Prime Minister, despite having no national-level economic experience, nor having served as a deputy prime minister. His government was criticized for the mishandling of the onset of new Covid-19 variants and the purchase of vaccines. 

Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh speaks during a trade signing ceremony at parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, March 11, 2024. (Marty Melville / AFP)
Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh speaks during a trade signing ceremony at parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, March 11, 2024. (Marty Melville / AFP)

Chinh, 65, was embroiled in scandals involving AIC and its CEO, Nguyen Thi Thanh Nhan. AIC was a general trading company whose rise was largely tied to Chinh’s promotions. 

Nhan has long been rumored to be Chinh’s mistress, and was convicted in absentia in January 2023, receiving a 30-year sentence. She also received a 10-year sentence in a second trial bid rigging trial – this time in Quang Ninh – in October. In addition, two other senior officials from Quang Ninh were arrested in late 2023, seen as another attempt to pressure Chinh.

Chinh reportedly submitted a self-criticism to the Politburo. That, and the fact that there was no clear replacement for him, likely saved him. But, in March, the minister of labor was disciplined for a bid-rigging scandal involving AIC. Each AIC case is a Sword of Damocles hanging over Chinh.

While Chinh has overseen a period of economic growth, the country continues to miss its growth targets. Foreign investment has flowed in, but the government has failed to push through important reforms, and there is no shortage of problems – from a banking crisis, to real estate bubble, to energy shortages, to freezes in public spending – that have gone unresolved under his watch.

Despite his shortcomings in administration and economic management, the general secretary position is not an executive function. Chinh could be seen as a compromise candidate, which is his greatest strength.

Policeman Lam

To Lam is a career policeman, having served since graduating from the People’s Security Academy in 1979. He is a northerner, from Hung Yen province.

Lam rose through the ranks, and joined the Central Committee at the 11th Congress, the year he became Deputy Minister. He has been the minister of public security, with the rank of general, since joining the Politburo at the 12th Party Congress in 2016. He is ranked fourth.

Given that his entire career was within the secretive MPS, there’s much outsiders don’t know about him, though most of his postings were in the general security department, the largest within MPS. 

In 2016, Lam’s predecessor, President Tran Dai Quang, appointed him to head the steering committees on anti-corruption and the Central Highlands, a region that continues to experience unrest from the Montagnard minority. These are two of the most sensitive issues for the CPV leadership. 

Lam was almost brought down with his own scandal. In November 2021, after laying a wreath at the grave of Karl Marx while on a trip to London, he was filmed eating $2,000 gold-encrusted steaks at Salt Bae’s restaurant in an episode that went viral. Lam has gone after people who publicly mocked him with a vengeance.

Lam kept his job, but found that his best defense was to go on the offense. 

He put himself at the disposal of Nguyen Phu Trong’s “Blazing Furnace” anti-corruption campaign, and in the process, weaponized corruption investigations to take down his political rivals. 

Competent technocrats, Deputy Prime Ministers Vu Duc Dam and Pham Binh Minh fell in late 2022; President Nguyen Xuan Phuc was ousted in February 2023, and Politburo members Tran Tuan Anh, President Vo Van Thuong, and Vuong Dinh Hue were sackedin 2024.

Lam is no cleaner than other politicians. Like others, his family’s vast corporate interests derive from his power and position. To date, none of these have been publicly aired.

Vietnam Minister of Public Security To Lam is seen ahead of a meeting in Hanoi, Oct. 30, 2020. (Hoang Thong Nhat/VNA via AP)
Vietnam Minister of Public Security To Lam is seen ahead of a meeting in Hanoi, Oct. 30, 2020. (Hoang Thong Nhat/VNA via AP)

While he is the guardian of the Communist Party, Lam isn’t an ideologue. Diplomats and Western businessmen who have met him describe him as pragmatic.

However, he has led the campaign against dissent, cracked down on civil society organizations, tightened internet controls, and planned the kidnapping of an economic fugitive from Germany. 

In many ways, Lam is the least qualified but the most secure. He has something that none of his rivals have: the vast investigative powers of the MPS, which he uses with great dispatch as he strategizes to be the last one standing. 

Vietnam’s political system is a selectorate, in which higher-ranking bodies select underlings, giving them experience across party, state and provincial positions. 

Party loyalty is the most important qualification. The Politburo is always a delicate mix of competing interests, including party versus state, regional and factional. Add in the VCP’s own requirement for two-term experience, and the political gene pool is both shallow and small.

Does it matter? The general secretary has no executive function. Unlike China, the presidency and general secretary are separated, so the top party post also has no core diplomatic function. 

But, the general secretary is primus inter pares, and sets the party line, and has vast convening and agenda-setting powers. The general secretary’s interests, such as the Blazing Furnace campaign, become the party’s priorities. Personnel and government policies must conform to party dictates. 

While Lam is now the frontrunner to succeed Trong, it’s the 180-man CPV Central Committee that will have the last word. The Central Committee has rejected Politburo personnel decisions in the past; and they could change or waive party rules to allow for a general secretary who only has one term experience on the Politburo. 

And given the potential for a deadlock, we can never rule out Trong presenting himself as the compromise candidate. After all, if succession is so divisive, then why have succession?

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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