Vietnam’s Leadership Transition In 2016: A Preliminary Analysis


By Le Hong Hiep*

The 12th national congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) being held in 2016 will be an important political event to watch. Among the most significant issues on the agenda will be the election of the Party’s Central Committee as well as its top leadership positions, including the Politburo and the General Secretary. The country’s new leadership coming out of the congress will provide clues to how Vietnam’s future economic, political and foreign policies will unfold.

Vietnam’s politics, especially the CPV’s internal decision-making mechanism, is well known for its lack of transparency, and predicting its leadership changes at party congresses remains largely a speculative exercise at best. Nevertheless, given its importance, the issue merits close attention by Vietnam watchers. Based on recently available information regarding the CPV’s personnel preparation for the congress as well as trends in Vietnam’s politics, this paper provides a preliminary analysis of the coming leadership transition.

The paper is divided into three sections. The first analyses the election of the next Central Committee, while the second discusses the possible line-up of the next Politburo. The final section examines the power politics surrounding the top four positions, especially that of the General Secretary. The paper argues that the increasing power and influence of incumbent Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung will be the most important factor shaping the outcome.


According to the 2011 Constitution of the CPV (Article 9), the Central Committee is the paramount organ of the Party for the period between national congresses. Every five years, party units across the country nominate delegates to attend party conferences at upper levels. In 2011, for example, this process resulted in the nomination of 1.377 delegates to attend the 11th national congress. Under the principle of democratic centralism, delegates at the national congress will represent the 3.6 million party members in electing the Central Committee, which in turn will elect from its ranks the Politburo, the General Secretary, the Secretariat, the Inspectorate Commission, and the Head of the Inspectorate Commission (CPV, 2011). Within six months after the party congress concludes, the National Assembly election will be held. The new National Assembly will vote to approve key office holders of the new government from among nominated members of the new Politburo and Central Committee. The election of the Central Committee therefore shapes not only the new Party leadership but also the new government.

Apart from the political, moral and professional criteria for candidates, there are a few rules regarding the election of the Central Committee.

First, the composition of the Central Committee is based on an informal “quota” system which seeks to ensure a balanced representation of geographical regions, sectors, ministerial agencies, ethnic groups, age, and sexes. Based on this quota system, the Party’s Central Commission of Organization will craft a list of candidates to be approved by the Politburo. For example, in early 2015, the Commission announced that it had selected 290 party cadres as potential members of future Central Committees, and 22 other senior cadres as potential members of future Politburos and Secretariats (VnExpress, 2015). However, this quota system is not fixed, and the number of Central Committee members elected from each group may vary slightly from congress to congress depending on the number of available qualified candidates as well as the actual election results.

Moreover, in order to expose potential candidates to necessary experiences and to get them ready for their future jobs, the Party also regularly rotates them between various positions at both local and central levels, and between jobs of narrow functional focus and positions of general management. For example, in March 2014, the Party’s Central Commission of Organization announced that 44 party officials working at various central agencies would be rotated to the provinces, holding the positions of either deputy secretary of provincial party units, or deputy chairperson of the provincial people’s committee (See Appendix 1 for more information). After the rotation, 22 of these officials will be considered for nomination for the next Central Committee (Vietnam News Agency, 2014), while the rest may be nominated as alternate members of the next Committee or promoted into higher positions after the 12th congress.

Second, the number of candidates must exceed the number of seats by 10 to 30 per cent. This rule is to allow for a certain level of competition among candidates, while ensuring that the party can still control the outcome of the election. However, it should be noted that candidates are not allowed to publicly campaign for their Central Committee membership.

Third, except for a number of special cases, there is generally an age limit of 55 for candidates who are nominated into the Central Committee for the first time, and 60 for incumbent members who are nominated for another term. If the age limit is strictly enforced at the 12th congress, more than 80 of the 154 members of the current Central Committee, who are not members of either the Politburo or the Secretariat, will have to retire.1

As candidates for the Central Committee are picked by the Politburo, the practice tends to impede transparency and intra-party democracy. To compensate for this shortcoming, at the last two congresses, the party allowed delegates to self-nominate or nominate candidates who were not on the list recommended by the Politburo. For example, at the 10th national congress in 2006, of the 207 candidates for the new Central Committee, 31 were nominated by congress delegates, and 2 were self-nominees (BBC, 2006). Meanwhile, at the 11th congress in 2011, of the 218 candidates for full membership in the new Central Committee, 31 were nominated by delegates at the congress, and one was a self-nominee (Tuoi Tre, 2011).

At the 12th congress next year, however, delegates’ right to nominate or self-nominate for Central Committee membership will be removed. According to the Central Committee’s Decision 244-QD/TW dated 9 June 2014 on intra-party elections, all candidates for the Central Committee must be approved by the Politburo.2

Against this backdrop, parts of the list of candidates for the next Central Committee may have been decided by the Politburo. As delegates at the 12th National Congress will no longer have the right to self-nominate or nominate candidates, the list of candidates for the next Central Committee proposed by the Politburo may include only around 220 people (around 190 for full membership and around 30 for alternate membership).3 Among the candidates for full membership, it is likely that about 75-90 will come from current full members,4 20-25 from current alternate members, and 22 from officials rotated to provincial governments in 2014. In addition, since members from or associated with the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Public Security have normally accounted for 15 per cent of recent Central Committees, about 15-18 new representatives from these two ministries will also be nominated for the new Committee to replace those due to retire next year. Finally, a number of officials from provinces and other ministries and sectors may also be nominated.

The actual and final list of candidates, however, is subject to the quiet yet intense competition and bargaining among different factions within the party, especially the Politburo, although on the surface it looks like a routine and standardized procedure conducted by the Party’s Central Commission of Organization. Such a competition is understandable given the importance of the Central Committee in the formation of the next Politburo as well as the election of the next General Secretary.


There are a few rules regarding the election of the Politburo. First, saving some exceptions, candidates nominated to the Politburo for the first time should not be over 60, while current members seeking re-election should not be over 65. However, the age limit for Politburo candidates who are considered for one of the top four posts (namely General Secretary, State President, Prime Minster, and Speaker of the National Assembly) has been extended to 67.5 Second, candidates should have experience at both central and local levels, except for officials of certain specialized backgrounds, such as those from the Ministries of Defence, Public Security, or Foreign Affairs. Third, based on past election patterns, candidates should have served at least one term as a full member of the Central Committee. In other words, candidates for the new Politburo will be picked from current Central Committee members who are set to retain their seat.6 Finally, a new rule is reported to have been adopted recently, requiring any Central Committee member to be endorsed by at least 4 Politburo members and 10 Central Committee members in order to qualify as a candidate for the new Politburo.

At the 12th congress, 4 members born in 1944-1947 (see Table 2 for details) will have to retire due to the age limit rule. Among the six members born in 1949-1950 (turning 66-67 next year), the question of who will stay and who will retire is harder to answer. However, as the new Prime Minister will most likely be picked from the current Deputy Prime Ministers, at least three of them will have to retire as there are only three top posts left. For the remaining 6 members born in 1953-1956, most (and possibly not all) will stand a fair chance of being re-elected. In other words, at the next congress, 7 to 11 current Politburo members will retire, and about the same number of new members will be added.7

This list is based on an analysis of a combination of factors, including candidates’ seniority and performance; their past experiences and upward mobility trend; their political connections; and the availability of posts that they may be assigned to if elected. The list is by no means conclusive, and serves as a reference only. The final list of candidates is possibly still being discussed and negotiated among current Politburo members. The bargain as well as the final list, however, will reflect the balance of power within the current Politburo, especially the top party officials. In this connection, the rising power of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung will be a key factor in understanding not only the line-up of the next Politburo but also the country’s coming top leadership transition. Candidates with better connections with Dung will stand a fairer chance to be elected into the Politburo. This is due to the increasing influence of Dung over the Central Committee, the “electoral college” which will elect the Politburo as well as the new General Secretary.


Prime Minister Dung has possibly been Vietnam’s most powerful politician over the past thirty years, since the demise of General Secretary Le Duan. Becoming an alternate member of the Central Committee at the 6th national congress in 1986 at the age of 37, Dung quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a full member of the Committee in 1991, Politburo member in 1996, Deputy Prime Minister in 1997 and Prime Minister since 2006. Although he has served two terms as head of the government and will turn 67 next year, Dung may remain one of the top politicians of the country for at least the next five years thanks to his vast influence over the current and, possibly, next Central Committee.8

Dung’s influence over the current Central Committee became evident in October 2012, when it reversed an earlier decision by the Politburo to discipline him for his mismanagement of the economy. In May 2013, although General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong endorsed Nguyen Ba Thanh and Vuong Dinh Hue, who were either political rivals or non-allies of Dung, as additional Politburo members, the Central Committee elected Nguyen Thien Nhan and Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan instead. Both Nhan and Ngan are from the South and seen as close allies of Dung. More recently, in an unprecedented confidence vote on 20 top party officials by the Central Committee in January 2015, Dung outperformed his peers and secured the most confidence votes although the country’s recent economic performance remains lacklustre.

Four major reasons may account for Dung’s growing influence over the Central Committee. First, the Central Committee is mostly composed of cabinet members and top officials from provinces, whose appointment was either decided or greatly influenced by Dung. Second, Dung’s important role in allocating state budgets to local governments alongside his good relationship with businesses, which normally maintain close ties with provincial leaders, also accords him a significant level of political loyalty. Third, Dung’s influence over the Ministry of Defense and, especially, the Ministry of Public Security (where he previously served as a 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. Finally, as the longest serving member of the Politburo who has held many influential posts, Dung seems to have cultivated an extensive network of ties that enables him to mobilize political support among the party’s senior officials, especially those in the Central Committee.

Therefore, 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 elected the next CPV General Secretary. The question, however, is how much influence he can exert on the election of the new Central Committee. This question becomes more relevant after the Central Committee issued Decision 244 in June 2014 to prevent delegates at the next Congress to self-nominate or nominate candidates for the new Central Committee.

There are a few reasons that may explain the origin of Decision 244.

First, Dung’s rivals in the Politburo may want to use the Decision to block him and his supporters from nominating his allies and protégés. In 2011, for example, Dung’s eldest son Nguyen Thanh Nghi was elected as an alternate member of the Central Committee after being nominated by delegates at the congress although he initially was not on the list of candidates. If this was the case, although Dung’s influence was significant, he seemed unable to single-handedly control the Central Committee and had to make compromise with other factions within it.

Second, although the delegates’ right to self-nominate and nominate candidates for the Central Committee reflects a certain level of intra-party democracy, such a practice may undermine the Party’s personnel planning, as those not endorsed by the Politburo may get elected and vice versa. In view of Vietnam’s recent economic difficulties and increasing pressures for a more efficient bureaucracy, the Party may have prioritized efficiency over intra-party democracy as it hopes the new regulation may enable it to form a new Central Committee that best fits its reform agenda for the next five years.

Finally, there is a possibility that Dung and his followers in the Central Committee have used Decision 244 to lock in the advantage of his faction. In this regard, the Decision’s timing is a revealing indication. For example, in March 2014, three months before Decision 244 was released, the CPV Central Commission of Organization announced a list of 44 cadres, including Dung’s eldest son Nguyen Thanh Nghi, to be rotated to provincial governments. Twenty two of these officials were earmarked as candidates for the next Central Committee (Vietnam News Agency, 2014).9 In other words, at least parts of the list of candidates for the next Central Committee might have been shaped before Decision 244 was issued. If so, negative implications, if any, of Decision 244 for Dung’s influence over the next Central Committee is likely to be minimal.

In sum, with his current wealth of power and influence over the Central Committee, it is highly likely that Prime Minister Dung will emerge as the strongest candidate for the General Secretary position at the 12th CPV congress.

If this scenario actualizes, Vietnam will likely have a stronger and more unified leadership since the next Prime Minister, for practical and traditional reasons,10 will be picked from Dung’s five deputies. Among them, Nguyen Xuan Phuc seems to enjoy the most advantage as he has been a Politburo member while the other four have not. Moreover, given the CPV’s tradition of distributing the top 4 positions among the three major geographical regions, the fact that Phuc is from the central province of Quang Nam may give him another competitive edge as the other three top posts will likely be awarded to Politburo members from the North or the South.11

Nevertheless, Phuc’s rise may be challenged by his colleagues.12 Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, who is touted as a “rising star” in Vietnam’s politics (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2014), may be one of them. As a young, capable and Western-trained technocrat who has experiences at both central and local levels, Dam seems well-positioned to do the job, especially if the Party wishes to formulate a more efficient and reform-oriented government. Turning 53 next year, Dam will also be able to serve 2 full terms in office. However, Dam’s major disadvantage is that he is not yet a Politburo member. Therefore, despite his qualities, Dam may not stand any chance unless he gets elected into the next Politburo13 and is recommended by Prime Minister Dung as his successor.

Dung’s prospect of becoming the next CPV General Secretary also has implications for two other important posts: the State President and the Speaker of National Assembly. The list of candidates for these two positions is harder to define as successful candidates traditionally come from various backgrounds. These positions, which are largely ceremonial and normally awarded to senior Politburo members who lose in their competition for the position of General Secretary, will likely be decided after the candidate for the General Secretary position has been confirmed.

In case Dung becomes the next General Secretary and gathers enough support, there is a possibility that he may try to merge the positions of General Secretary and State President. However, such a move will be challenged by his political rivals, who are likely to demand concessions from him over the position of State President if he wishes to become the next General Secretary. In such a case, Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh may emerge as the strongest candidate for the job.
For the position of National Assembly Speaker, the most prominent candidate is probably Mrs. Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, currently Politburo member and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly. Other potential candidates are Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (if Phuc for some reason loses his race for the Premiership) and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly Tong Thi Phong.


Organized at a critical juncture in the country’s development, the 12th national congress of the CPV next year will bear important implications for Vietnam’s future trajectory. The congress will review the past 30 years of reform under Doi Moi and set policy directions for the country’s future socio-economic development, especially against the backdrop of its weakened economic growth since 2008. However, whether Vietnam can overcome recent socio-economic challenges to usher in a new phase of robust development will depend on institutional and policy reforms that may be introduced by the Party at the congress, and especially by the new leadership that will emerge. Therefore, the leadership transition at the 12th CPV congress will probably be the most important one for Vietnam over the past 30 years.

So far, little is known about the Party’s preparation for the leadership transition next year, except for sporadic announcements from its Central Commission of Organization. Nevertheless, these announcements, together with observable trends and developments in Vietnam’s politics, show that the Party is according great importance to the leadership transition next year. It has introduced new intra-party electoral regulations to centralize the formation of the next Central Committee. It has also been active in training and preparing selected cadres for future Central Committee membership. However, the planning of high- ranking positions, including the top leadership as well as the Politburo, tends to be less certain as the bargaining between different factions seems to be ongoing and will inevitably slow down the process.

A key factor that is likely to shape the outcome of the next leadership transition is the growing power and influence of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Specifically, whether Dung can make use of his vast influence over the current Central Committee to shape the next Central Committee and Politburo in his favour will directly inform his political future. If he can, there is a very real possibility that he will be elected the next CPV General Secretary. Within this scenario, Vietnam will have a stronger and more unified leadership, as the next Prime Minister will likely be one of his protégés. Such a leadership may turn out to be favourable for Vietnam because it is presently in need of a strong and efficient leadership to pursue bolder economic and foreign policy reforms. However, strong leadership may also constrain meaningful political reforms and the fight against corruption. Moreover, if Dung can secure enough support to remain in power and to forge a leadership team of his own, he will have to deliver certain outcomes to justify his hold on power, especially strengthened economic growth and a more efficient and accountable bureaucracy.

That said, the CPV’s preparation for the next leadership transition remains an unfinished business. Power competition and bargaining between factions will probably rage on at least until the eve of the congress. The game seems now to be in Dung’s favour, but the final score is far from being settled. It is this state of affairs that makes it necessary for Vietnam watchers to constantly follow further developments in the lead up to the CPV’s 12th congress.

About the author:
*Le Hong Hiep is 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.

This article was published by ISEAS as ISEAS Perspectives #24, May 2015 (PDF)

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Center for Strategic and International Studies. (2014, 10 Jan). The Leaderboard: Vu Duc Dam Retrieved 4 May, 2015, from
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Hiep, L. H. (2015, 5 Mar). Power shifts in Vietnam’s political system. East Asia Forum Retrieved 2 May, 2015, from vietnams-political-system/
Tuoi Tre. (2011, 18 Jan). Hôm nay bầu Tổng bí thư, Bộ Chính trị, Ban Bí thư [General Secretary, Poliburo and Secreatariat to be elected today] Retrieved 24 Apr, 2015, from thu/421017.html
Vietnam News Agency. (2014, 6 Mar). Bộ Chính trị, Ban Bí thư quyết định luân chuyển 44 cán bộ [Politburo, Secretariat decide to rotate 44 cadres] Retrieved 3 May, 2015, from bo/247244.vnp
VnExpress. (2014, 21 Mar). Danh tính và chức vụ của 44 cán bộ luân chuyển [Name and position of 44 rotated officials] Retrieved 3 May, 2015, from tuc/thoi-su/cong-bo-44-can-bo-trung-uong-luan-chuyen-2967137-p2.html
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1. There are 175 full members in the current Central Committee, but 21 of them are also members of the Politburo or Secretariat, who are subject to a different age limit. This issue will be discussed in the next section.
2. Full text of the decision (in Vietnamese) is available at: dinh-244-QD-TW-2014-Quy-che-bau-cu-trong-Dang-vb241280.aspx
3. This is based on the assumption that the number of full and alternate members will remain unchanged (175 and 25, respectively).
4. Some of the 17 members who were born in 1956 may also be offered candidature.
5. In 2011, for example, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was elected when he was turning 67.
6. This will include a number of current Politburo members.
7. This is based on the assumption that the new Politburo will be composed of 17 members.
8. The analysis in this section is expanded and updated from Hiep (2015).
9. As about half of the current Committee will be re-nominated, this group will account for approximately a quarter of new members to be elected at the next Congress.
10. Over the past 30 years, all Vietnamese Prime Ministers have served at least one term as a Deputy Prime Minister.
11. The CPV traditionally tries to maintain a balanced geographical representation among the top four posts. The balance, however, is relative, as there are only three major geographical regions but four top posts.
12. However, the chances for Deputy Prime Ministers Hoang Trung Hai, Pham Binh Minh, and Vu Van Ninh are low due to their lack of experiences at local level, narrow portfolio, or age constraints.
13. Traditionally, candidates for the top four posts must have served at least one term as a Politburo member. This rule, if enforced, further dampens Dam’s prospect to become the next Prime Minister, unless there is a strong reason for an exception to be made.

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