Vietnam National Assembly approves removal of President Phuc after COVID scandals

Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan will serve as acting president until parliament elects a replacement in May.
By RFA Vietnamese
2023.01.18
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Vietnam National Assembly  approves removal of President Phuc after COVID scandals Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc was removed from office Wednesday over COVID-19 bribery scandals that took place during his term, state media reports.
Pool via Reuters file photo

Vietnam’s parliament on Wednesday approved the removal of President Nguyen Xuan Phuc over COVID-19 bribery scandals that took place during his term, state media in the communist country reported.

In a widely expected move, the National Assembly rubber-stamped a decision the previous day by the Communist Party of Vietnam to relieve Phuc of the presidency, membership in the Politburo and Party Central Committee, and chairmanship of the National Defense and Security Council.

The reshuffle sets the stage for more infighting in the run up to the 2026 party leadership contest in the country of 98 million people with a fast-growing economy.

State media said 465 out of 482 delegates of the National Assembly voted to approve Phuc’s dismissal and the appointment of Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan as acting president until a leadership election in May.

The ouster of Phuc, whose future has been a trending topic on Vietnamese social media, came amid corruption scandals  involving COVID test kits and rescue flights of citizens stranded overseas that had already toppled two deputy prime ministers and three ministers.

The party announced last year that ministers, top officials and diplomats were among the more than 530 party members who were prosecuted or disciplined  for corruption or other wrongdoings.

In addition to assigning political blame to Phuc for the major COVID scandals, the shake-up also reflected the victory of security hawks over business friendly leaders in a deeper power struggle at the top of the one-party state, analysts said.

Although the position of president in Vietnam is largely ceremonial, Phuc was seen as a reassuring presence for Vietnamese business and foreign investors, and his ouster reveals cracks at the top of the communist leadership that has prided itself on collective leadership.

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin with Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang inspects an honor guard in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2021. The United States and Vietnam have been seeking to bolster ties. Credit: VNA via AP

Key Vietnamese policies, including Hanoi’s policy of cautiously deepening ties with the United States without alienating powerful neighbor China, would not be affected by the reshuffle,  Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert and professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, told Radio Free Asia.

Vietnam’s foreign policy towards the major powers is made collectively by the Politburo in which the influence of its most senior members is paramount,” he said.

Vietnamese analysts told RFA the Communist Party was being characteristically opaque about the closed-door top personnel decisions, raising questions about the reasons for the ouster of Phuc and his deputy ministers and cabinet members. 

“The CPV has a tradition of covering up internal affairs, especially the wrongdoings by high-level party members such as members of the Central Party Committee and Politburo, as well as the country’s top four leaders,” said journalist Vo Van Tao from the central city of Nha Trang.

Tao pointed to social media commentary saying that Phuc’s family and friends were involved in running so-called “backyard businesses” and enmeshed in the scandal in which healthcare company Viet A admitted bribing officials for contracts to sell substandard COVID test kits to hospitals.

“Over the past few months, social media have been talking about the wrongdoings in which his wife, children and his wife’s friends had been involved,” he said.

RFA has not confirmed reports and social media accounts about Phuc's family.

Foreign and Vietnamese analysts see the ouster of Phuc and other technocrats as part of jockeying for the next party congress in 2026, with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong lining up allies to replace him as the party’s top leader when he must retire due to age limits.

“Internally, there was a political reason, which is the competition for the state president seat, preparation for the general secretary position,” said independent journalist Nguyen An Dan.

Among scenarios for replacing Phuc after May’s vote, analysts say Trong could serve as party boss and state president concurrently, a step he took when a president died in office five years ago. 

Other senior figures seen as candidates are Minister of National Defense Phan Van Giang and Minister of Public Security To Lam.

Translated by Anna Vu. Written by Paul Eckert.

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