Vietnam's versatile political system


Hanoi is growing commercially and diplomatically, but it is at the center of the interests of global powers. Continuing to take advantage of this in a positive way will not be easy, , but Vietnam wants to continue the process that lifted millions of people out of poverty after the war

Almost two years before the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the 13th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party was held. Almost two years before Xi Jinping won a historic third term as general secretary, so had Nguyen Phu Trong. It was there that the 19 members of the Politburo and, most importantly, the four crucial positions in the Vietnamese system were appointed: general secretary of the party, president of the Republic, prime minister, and president of the National Assembly (the unicameral legislative body). These are the figures on which the so-called "four pillars" principle is based, holding up the Vietnamese political system.

Yet, the number four has been in the recent past partially eroded. After Tran Dai Quang's death in 2018, Trong was president just until the January 2021 Congress. There he won confirmation as secretary-general on a historic scale. Trong, 76 years old and in health described by multiple sources as "precarious," is now Vietnam's longest-serving leader since Le Duan, Ho Chi Minh's successor, and since Doi Moi, the program of reforms and openings launched in 1986. Set aside the two-term limit, as Trong has been secretary-general since 2011. A sign that no agreement has been reached on a possible successor, but also the completion of a process of centralizing powers that began as early as the dawn of his first term, when the leadership of the Central Anti-Corruption Committee passed from the prime minister to the secretary. Trong, similarly to Xi Jinping, has built his reputation on an ostentatious inflexibility in security and anti-corruption matters, promoted through the ruthless "fiery furnace" campaign that enabled him to get rid of defeated political rivals at the 12th Congress in 2016. Instrument used by Trong immediately after the 2016 congress to launch the "fiery furnace" campaign, through which he increased his popularity and got rid of some political rivals.

The path continued in the past few months as well, when came the "guided" resignation of Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the former chairman lapped up by an anti-corruption investigation as part of the new momentum in the anti-corruption campaign. Phuc was the big disappointment of the 13th Congress, as he expected promotion from premier to party secretary. In his place was appointed Vo Van Thuong, who at "only" 52 years old is the youngest member of the Politburo. Thuong signifies continuity, since like Trong the new president takes a rather orthodox ideological line, cloaked in strong anti-corruption rhetoric but also a drive for business. Born in the southern province of Vinh Long, he interrupted an interlude in which all 4 pillars were expressed by the northern provinces. His appointment thus brings back a kind of regional balancing that had always characterized Vietnamese politics. There are also those who see the appointment of a politician at a still relatively young age as the first sign of a future succession to Trong, perhaps at the next Congress in 2026.

In the meantime, Hanoi will try to continue to attract foreign investment. Several international giants, starting with electronics, are choosing Vietnam to position themselves in Asia or diversify their production chains away from China. A phenomenon spurred by the free trade agreements signed by Hanoi with the European Union and the United Kingdom. But also by the side effects of tensions between China and the United States,which has led of the relocation of production lines to a less politically exposed country with lower labor costs than in the People's Republic. The Vietnamese economy grew by 8.02 percent in 2022, the fastest annual pace since 1997. This is higher than even the ambitious +6.%-6.5% that had been set by the government. Settling in Vietnam are not only low-quality production lines, but also productions of tech and electronics giants. A very long list that includes several Apple suppliers, among others.

But geopolitics is knocking at the door. Vietnam is increasingly the focus of U.S. attention, which is seeking to improve relations with an important player on the stage they care most about, the Asia-Pacific. Not surprisingly, an important visit by Antony Blinken to Hanoi took place in April. Not only that. On March 29, Joe Biden had a telephone conversation with Trong. Not such a usual move, since the U.S. president usually speaks with his Vietnamese counterpart. The timing was also interesting, since the talk took place in conjunction with the White House-organized Democracy Summit. The more malignant have pointed out that a political system that is certainly not democratic may eventually suit Biden if this is part of his strategy or calculation. As, moreover, is already the case with India. Blinken's visit served to lay the groundwork for the elevation of relations, which is expected to take place in July. But Vietnam has no intention of allowing itself to be "enlisted," on either side. To continue a historic process that brought millions of people out of poverty after the ravages of war.

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