Vietnam’s National Assembly yesterday officially approved the resignation of President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, an unprecedented sign of political upheaval at the height of the country’s politics, and announced his interim replacement.
On January 17, the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) stated that Phuc, who served as prime minister in 2016-2021 before taking the largely ceremonial post of state president, had submitted his resignation. This came after the CPV blamed him for “violations and wrongdoings” committed by officials during his time in office.
Phuc’s resignation, the first by a sitting Vietnamese president, is the most significant political event in years, if not decades – a rare sign of rapid change in the otherwise rigid façade of CPV politics. It marks both an escalation of the party chief Nguyen Phu Trong’s near-decade-long anti-corruption drive and a brash assertion on the part of the country’s conservative securocracy.
The “violations and wrongdoings” mentioned by the CPV are almost certainly related to a pair of pandemic-era corruption scandals, one involving COVID-19 test-kits and the other involving repatriation flights for Vietnamese citizens stranded abroad.
These two scandals, in addition to many others, have prompted a purge of the upper echelons of Vietnamese officialdom. Phuc’s resignation was preceded by those of two of the country’s four deputy prime ministers on January 5, as well as the expulsion from the party, and in some cases the arrest, of a raft of other senior officials. While it is unclear whether Phuc was directly involved in any of these scandals, the party authorities ultimately held him responsible for the offenses committed by his underlings.
According to Vietnamese state media reports, Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan will serve as acting president until a new president is named, likely at the next meeting of the National Assembly in May. Xuan, 53, is the secretary of the Secretary of the An Giang Provincial Party Committee and was elected to the CPV’s Central Committee in 2016.
If appointed, Xuan, who was elected as the vice president in 2021, would become the first woman to hold the post of president, though she is not the first woman to serve in an interim capacity.
While Phuc’s removal is hugely significant, and likely marks the beginning of a period of unusual turbidity and flux behind the CPV’s otherwise monochrome façade, its full impacts will likely take some time to become known. In the meantime, there is the possibility that Trong will continue to swing his scythe. Barely having caught their breath following the president’s resignation, watchers of Vietnamese politics await the possibility that other high-ranking officials could follow him through the trapdoor.