Vietnam’s National Assembly has elected Vo Van Thuong as the country’s new president signaling an increased focus on stamping out corruption at all levels of the communist party.
All but one of the 488 legislators voted to pick the veteran party member to serve out the rest of the 2021-2026 term at an extraordinary session in Hanoi Thursday.
“I will be absolutely loyal to the fatherland, the people and the constitution of the Socialist republic of Vietnam, striving to fulfill the tasks assigned by the party, the state and the people,” Thuong told parliament in a short speech broadcast live on state television, which also carried his swearing-in ceremony.
Thuong replaces Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who was dismissed as president by the National Assembly on Jan. 18 and removed as an assembly member.
Phuc earlier announced he was resigning to take responsibility for COVID-related scandals on his watch, which claimed the jobs of two deputy prime ministers and three ministers.
A communist through-and-through
At 52, Vo Van Thuong is the youngest member of the Politburo and 16 years younger than his predecessor. He was born in the final years of the 20-year Vietnam war in the northern Vietnamese province of Hai Duong.
Thuong considers himself a southerner, listing his home province as Vinh Long in his official biography. He relocated to southern Vietnam when the country reunified after the war ended in 1975. He holds a degree in Marxism-Leninism philosophy and studied at the Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics.
Thuong started his career with the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union. He was then promoted to be secretary of the union.
He also has experience working in Central Vietnam, where he served as secretary of Quang Ngai province for three years until 2014.
Thuong is a communist party loyalist through-and-through spending his entire career serving the party and educating members in ideology, culture, ethics and morality, according to Carl Thayer, a veteran Vietnam watcher.
“Since Thuong’s elevation to head the party’s Secretariat he has assumed significant responsibility for the campaign to combat corruption and negative phenomena,” Thayer said.
“Thuong has focused on preventing individualism, ending lobbying for jobs, and encouraging cadres who have erred to voluntarily resign.
“In addition, he has been intimately involved in decisions on streamlining the party bureaucracy, rotation of cadres, and emulation movements.”
Foreign policy unlikely to change
Thuong’s weakness may be foreign policy according to Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales who also runs his own consultancy. He said Thuong has only traveled with leaders and met officials from other communist nations.
“Thuong is not expected to initiate any new change in Vietnam’s foreign policy,” Thayer said.
“This is because there is a high degree of consensus among the top leaders on Vietnam’s foreign policy orientation.
“Also, foreign policy is the result of collective decision-making and consensus on the Politburo.
“However, Thuong is not as well versed in global affairs as his predecessor; he will be on a fast learning curve, and will be a relatively unknown quantity when he meets his foreign counterparts.”
A legacy of growth
Nguyen Xuan Phuc served as president since the 13th Party Congress in January 2021. From 2011-2016, he was the deputy prime minister, before being elevated at the 12th Party Congress in early 2016.
During Phuc’s term as prime minister Vietnam’s economy grew by 42% to U.S.$366 billion.
On assuming the presidency in 2021 he steered Vietnam through the COVID pandemic, helping it to see the only positive gross domestic product growth among ASEAN members that year.
At the 13th Congress two years ago, Phuc vied to become the general secretary, but did not have sufficient support. Thuong has a better chance according to Thayer.
“If Vo Van Thuong successfully carries out the duties of state president, he would be an odds-on favorite to replace Nguyen Phu Trong as party General Secretary. His long and unblemished career in the party’s ranks as well as his relatively youthful age all weigh in his favor.”
Vietnam’s presidency is largely a ceremonial role while general secretary carries far more weight.
Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan has been serving as Vietnam’s caretaker president since Phuc stepped down.
RFA Vietnamese contributed to this story.