Power shifts in Vietnam’s political system

Author: Le Hong Hiep, ISEAS

In recent years the power of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) has increased dramatically. If this trend continues, it may bear important implications for Vietnam’s political outlook.

Nguyen Sinh Hung, chairman of the National Assembly, Nguyen Xuan Phuc deputy prime minister and Pham Quang Nghi, Communist Party chief for Hanoi, attend a ribbon cutting ceremony next to a statue of Vietnam's former emperor Quang Trung during a ceremony marking the 226th anniversary of a celebrated military victory against China, in Hanoi on 23 February 2015. (Photo: AAP)

The Central Committee’s increasing power became evident in October 2012, when the Committee reversed an earlier decision by the Politburo to discipline Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung for his mismanagement of the economy. Then, in May 2013, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong endorsed Nguyen Ba Thanh and Vuong Dinh Hue, who headed the Party’s Commission of Internal Affairs and Commission of Economic Affairs respectively, as additional Politburo members. But the Central Committee elected two other candidates.

Another example of the Committee’s increasing power is its unprecedented confidence vote on 20 top party officials in January 2015.

Against this backdrop, a senior member of the National Assembly has even put forward a bold proposal that Vietnam should adopt a bicameral legislature, with the National Assembly serving as the lower house and the Party’s Central Committee as the senate.

The enhanced power of the Central Committee marks a transformation in the power structure of Vietnam’s political system. After the demise of General Secretary Le Duan in 1986, which marked the end of the strongman era, top political power has rested with the Politburo. Now with the Central Committee asserting its role as the highest authority of the Party, the country’s political power has become increasingly diffuse.

The CPV’s power structure now resembles a reverse pyramid with the Central Committee as the most powerful actor, followed by the Politburo and then the General Secretary. But this transformation is taking place at the top layer of the Party’s structure only. Most of the 3.6 million party members, as well as the public, are left out of the game, and have hardly any influence on the Central Committee’s agenda or its decision-making processes.

Therefore, this trend is not an indication of Vietnam’s progress towards democratisation. Rather, it is indicative of the ongoing power struggle within Vietnam’s top political elites. Prime Minister Dung has been exerting growing influence over the Central Committee, gaining more power at the expense of his peers, especially General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and President Truong Tan Sang. This explains why the Central Committee reversed the Politburo’s decision to discipline him, and denied Politburo membership for Thanh and Hue, who are both political rivals of Dung. It also partly accounts for the fact that Dung outperformed his peers in the Central Committee’s confidence vote in January 2015, although the country’s recent economic performance still leaves much to be desired.

How did Prime Minister Dung gain growing influence over the Central Committee?

The Central Committee is mostly composed of cabinet members and top officials from provinces, whose appointment was either decided or greatly influenced by Dung. Dung’s important role in allocating state budgets to local governments alongside his good relationship with business, which normally maintains close ties with provincial leaders, also affords him a significant level of political loyalty. Dung’s influence over the Ministry of Defense and, especially, the Ministry of Public Security (where he previously served as deputy minister) also works in his favour, because representatives from or associated with these two ministries account for up to 15 per cent of the Central Committee.

Following the 12th CPV National Congress in 2016, it is likely that the new Central Committee will continue to wield growing power. Especially if the current norm of the Committee conducting confidence votes on top party officials is maintained and if Prime Minister Dung is able to secure another term in office despite nearing the Politburo’s age limit.

If Dung can make use of his current political capital to get his protégés and allies elected to the new Central Committee, it is highly likely that he will be able to achieve his ambition of becoming the next CPV General Secretary.

Under such a scenario, Vietnam would have a stronger and more unified leadership, especially given that the next prime minister will probably be one of Dung’s protégés. This may be favourable for Vietnam because it needs a strong and efficient leadership to pursue bolder economic and foreign policy reforms. But strong leadership may also constrain meaningful political reforms and the fight against corruption.

Vietnam’s political leadership still depends on the outcome of ongoing power struggles in the lead up to the next party congress. The game seems now to be in Prime Minister Dung’s favour, but the final score will not be settled until the congress concludes in 2016.

Le Hong Hiep is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore. He is currently on research leave from his lectureship at the Faculty of International Relations, Vietnam National University- Ho Chi Minh City.

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