The Latest on Southeast Asia: January 19, 2023

On January 17, Vietnamese president Nguyen Xuan Phuc resigned from his position, becoming the latest and most senior figure caught up in an ongoing leadership purge. He is the first Vietnamese president ever ousted from office. A statement from the official Vietnam News Agency blamed Phuc for “violations and wrongdoings” by government officials during his previous tenure as prime minister from 2016 to 2021. His resignation follows those of two deputy prime ministers, Vu Duc Dam and Pham Binh Minh, on January 5. Minh, who was foreign minister from 2011 to 2021, was also removed from the Politburo.

The “violations” that brought down all three refer to two massive Covid-19-related corruption scandals. In the first, according to the Ministry of Public Security, officials extracted bribes of up to $85,000 each from Vietnamese citizens stranded abroad to secure seats on repatriation flights. Almost 40 people across six ministries have been arrested and others have been reprimanded or expelled, including officers at the Vietnamese embassies in Malaysia, India, Japan, Angola, and Russia.

In the second scandal, involving people close to Phuc’s wife, Viet A Technology Corporation is accused of paying $35 million in kickbacks to corner the market on test kits supplied to local hospitals. It then inflated the prices of those kits by 45 percent. To date, more than 100 people have been arrested for their role in that scandal.

Anti-corruption campaigns have been a signature of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s time in power. In 2022, 539 party members were disciplined for corruption in 453 separate cases, up 50 percent from the year before. The Communist Party of Vietnam’s internal politics are opaque to outsiders, but Phuc’s ouster has invited speculation that Trong is consolidating power, for his preferred faction if not for himself. Phuc has long been respected at home and abroad as a pragmatic and effective leader. He was once seen as the leading contender to assume the general secretary position, but was instead bumped from prime minister to the largely ceremonial role of president in 2021 when Trong decided to stay on for a third term.

The Standing Committee of the National Assembly held an extraordinary meeting the day after Phuc’s resignation to formally dismiss him. Rather than immediately pick his successor, it appointed Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan as acting president. This might indicate a lack of consensus, forcing the Assembly to defer a decision until its next meeting in May. Minister of Public Security To Lam is seen as the leading candidate but other names have been floated, including Trong himself. The general secretary last took on both jobs in 2017 when former president Tran Dai Quang died suddenly.

The unprecedented shifts in Vietnam’s leadership are unlikely to affect its foreign policy or economic performance, at least over the short term. Vietnam saw 8 percent GDP growth in 2022, the fastest in the region and a 25-year-high for the country. The longer-term question will be whether Trong can engineer an eventual succession to his liking. In the meantime, those outside the party will have to try and sift through the gossip and speculation.

Karen Lee is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS.

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Karen Lee
Research Associate, Southeast Asia Program
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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative