Vietnam's Communist Party Chief Poised for Unprecedented Power

(Bloomberg) -- Vietnamese Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong, nominated by the nation’s political apparatus to replace its deceased president, is poised to become the most influential leader there since late revolutionary founder Ho Chi Minh.

The party’s central committee on Wednesday nominated Trong, 74, to become president following the Sept. 21 death of Tran Dai Quang from illness, a government statement said.

Trong outmaneuvered influential former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to win a second five-year term as the Communist Party’s head during its 2016 congress. If his nomination is approved, he will directly oversee the nation’s police and military forces, mirroring the role held by Chinese President Xi Jinping. On March 11, China’s parliament voted to repeal presidential term limits, allowing Xi to keep power indefinitely.

As the only nominee for president, Trong is expected to be voted in by the National Assembly when it meets later this month.

The nomination breaks with Vietnamese tradition, in which political power rests with four individual leaders -- party chief, prime minister, president and head of the National Assembly.

Ho Chi Minh was party chief from 1956 to 1960 and served as president for periods between 1946 until his death in 1969, according to the party’s website.

‘Tipping Point’

“We are seeing a tipping point in the trajectory of the power struggle in the government,” said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. If made president, Trong “will be able to mobilize not just the party, but also the state apparatus.”

The government’s shifting power centers are not expected to change Vietnam’s push for global economic integration and efforts to strengthen relations with the U.S., Vuving said.

Trong has welcomed a robust U.S. presence in Southeast Asia amid Vietnam’s territorial tensions with China, which claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea based on a 1947 map showing vague dashes -- the so-called nine-dash line.

Trong has also spearheaded anti-corruption campaigns targeting officials and is likely to accelerate those efforts after consolidating power, Vuving said. He may also intensify prosecution of his critics in the government.

Vietnam’s government began increasing pressure on dissidents after Quang became president in 2016. Police have stepped up crackdowns on bloggers and Facebook critics. The government has deployed 10,000 members of a military cyber warfare unit to combat what it sees as a growing threat from “wrongful views” proliferating online.

It was not known if the merging of the party chief and president roles is temporary and will stand only until the next party congress in 2021, when new government and party leaders are selected.

The party’s operations in Vietnam are “very opaque,” Vuving said. “They want to conceal all the power struggles, jockeying and bargaining behind the scenes.”

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