Vietnam’s 12th National Party Congress: An Explanation

Today was a big day in Vietnam. Why Vietnam? Because today marked the end of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s 12th National Congress. The congresses, which occur every five years, are without a doubt the most important political events in the country. They mark the complete reorganization of the Vietnam’s leadership structure, which has enormous ramifications for the direction that the country will follow for the next 5 years. The most significant result of this year’s congress was the maintenance of Nguyễn Phú Trọng as the General Secretary of the Communist Party. What does that mean, you ask? Well, to answer that question, an understanding of Vietnam’s political structure is needed. In the stories by popular international media outlets like the New York Times, the basic implications of this event are mentioned, but they don’t go into enough detail to truly explain how Vietnam’s political system works. That’s what I’m going to do in this post!

First, for those who are unfamiliar with Vietnam, I’m going to provide some context. Vietnam is located in Southeast Asia, bordering China, Laos, and Cambodia. With 90 million people, its population is significantly larger than those of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Like China, Vietnam is a one-party state ruled by a communist political party. While it is less developed economically than China, it, too, has introduced capitalist market policies that have allowed it to build one of the fastest growing economies in the world. This means that, geopolitically, what happens in Vietnam matters to the rest of the world!

This photo shows Vietnam's location in Southeast Asia.
This photo shows Vietnam’s location in Southeast Asia.

So what exactly happened in Vietnam this week? Essentially, the Communist Party decided on its new leaders, who in turn will decide on the path forward for the Party, and consequently the country, over the next five years. In most western democracies, it is hard to imagine one political party having so much influence on a country’s policies. But because Vietnam is a one-party state, the governing structures of the Communist Party are intimately intertwined with the governing structures of the country as a whole. So what are some of these primary governing structures? Just to shoot out some names: the President, the Prime Minister, the Central Government, the National Assembly, the Central Committee, the General Secretary, the Politburo, and the Secretariat. Yep, these are all individuals or groups of individuals responsible for the government of Vietnam. Confusing, right? Well, I’ll try to explain it. I’ll start by distinguishing bodies of the Communist Party from bodies of the state.

The first four bodies in the list; the President, the Prime Minister, the Central Government, and the National Assembly; are all organizations of the state. The National Assembly is the country’s legislative body. Its members are elected by the people and its duties include making laws and appointing both the President and Prime Minister. The President is the head of state and commander-in-chief, entrusted to “represent the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam internally and externally” ( The Prime Minister, currently Nguyễn Tấn Dũng, is the head of government and is responsible for overseeing and directing the Central Government. The Central Government is simply a council of ministers that is responsible for implementing the policies of the National Assembly and Communist Party.

The Communist Party is made up primarily of the Central Committee, the Politburo, the Secretariat, and the General Secretary. The Central Committee is 175 member political body that meets twice per year and sets the policy of the Communist Party. The Politburo, whose 19 members are decided by the Central Committee, is sort of like an elite group that is responsible for enacting the policies set by the Central Committee. The Secretariat is another small group that has administrative responsibilities within the Party. The General Secretary of the Central Committee is the highest ranking member of the Central Committee, Politburo, and Secretariat, essentially leading the Communist Party.

The thing is, none of these organs of the Communist Party technically decide the policies of the state. They only decide the policies of the party. But because Vietnam is a one-party state, these organs are immensely powerful and are intertwined with the affairs of state organizations. Because both the President and Prime Minister are high-ranking Politburo members, and because the National Assembly is filled with members of the Communist Party, the leaders of the Communist Party make the decisions that determine the policies of the State. Therefore, decisions are often made collectively and the members of the Politburo are the most influential in setting the country’s policies. The General Secretary is considered the most powerful person in the country, surpassing even the President and Prime Minister. Thus the importance of the 12th Part Congress is very clear. While it did not involve the state bodies, delegates in this congress decided the members of the bodies of the Communist Party, including the Politburo and the General Secretary. They were consequently responsible for determining Vietnam’s direction over the next five years.

And what are the possible directions that they could have chosen? The two main competitors for the position of General Secretary were the incumbent,  Nguyễn Phú Trọng, and the current Prime Minister, Nguyễn Tấn Dũng. Nguyễn Phú Trọng represents a more conservative section of the party. He is reluctant to stand up to China, which often encroaches on Vietnam’s maritime territory, and is weary of market-based reforms that will result in a more capitalist system. Nguyễn Tấn Dũng, on the other hand, is more open to reform and favors closer cooperation with Western countries like the United States. During the recent congress, Nguyễn Phú Trọng remained the General Secretary.

So what does this mean? Well, Nguyễn Tấn Dũng is ineligible for becoming Prime Minister again, so the country will likely shift further towards the conservative position. It will be more reluctant to enact reform and will not seek to favor the United States over China. Nevertheless, both factions within the party recognize the importance of growing the economy and resisting China’s expansionism, as is evidenced by the fact that Vietnam is already a member of the American-led economic agreement, the Trans-Pacific-Partnership. In the end, with Nguyễn Phú Trọng remaining the General Secretary, the status quo in Vietnam has not shifted radically, but it may have tilted slightly towards a greater reluctance to pursue reforms.

Thank you for reading! I hope that this post has helped you understand the world a little bit better!

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