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Nguyen Phu Trong

Vietnam ruling Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong re-elected for 3rd term

Mr. Trong, who emerged on top in a power struggle at the last congress in 2016 and has spearheaded a “blazing furnace” crackdown on corruption in the last five years, was granted an exception to party rules which say people over the age of 65 should retire. Trong, 76, winning a rare third term as general secretary of the ruling Communist Party at a five-yearly party congress, combines decades at the pinnacles of power with the cultivated image of a frugal wordsmith serving the nation of 98 million people.

Famed for his “blazing furnace” crackdown on corruption, Trong’s Communist Party has also been criticized by human rights groups for a crackdown on dissent.

Trọng is a Marxist theoretician, and has long railed against some party members’ loss of “Marxist-Leninist virtue”. Frail but in strong command, for now, the committed Marxist-Leninist becomes Vietnam’s longest-serving party chief since Le Duan, who ruled with an iron fist after the 1969 death of “Uncle Ho”.

Trong’s rise and long rule stand in contrast with a trend of greater power-sharing among the country’s top four leaders since the “Doi Moi” reforms of the 1980s that transformed Vietnam from a war-torn agrarian basket case into one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies.

Trong’s post of party chief eclipses the other three – president, prime minister, and National Assembly chair. Trong has also held the largely ceremonial role of Vietnam’s president since his predecessor died in 2018.

He emerged on top in a power struggle with former prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the last party congress in 2016 and has since presided over an intense crackdown on corruption that has seen the jailing of dozens of high-ranking officials, including a politburo member.

Critics say the crackdown, which has targeted many of Dung’s allies, is politically motivated. Rights groups have criticized Trong for presiding over an intensified muzzling of dissent.

The language used by the party to describe its chief has changed under Trong, analysts say.

In 2019, the party released a book about him called “General Secretary and State President Nguyen Phu Trong: With the feelings of the people in the country and international friends”.

Across 600 pages, it speaks of Trong as an “intelligent, brave and pure leader” striving to bring Vietnam “shoulder to shoulder with the powers of the five continents, as Uncle Ho respectfully wished”, the book’s prelude says.

“I haven’t seen such language used about any other leader since the days of Ho Chi Minh,” said Linh Nguyen, a Singapore-based analyst at risk consultancy Control Risks. “It is a cult of personality under construction.”

HAMMER AND SICKLE

Trong has called for better party discipline and for stamping out corruption in its ranks.

A poem in the book describes Trong as “a nobleman, sent by the spirits to purify the system,” an apparent reference to the corruption crackdown. “Hammer and sickle in hand, he dispels gloom, waiting for the sunshine.”

Securing the third term implies that other party factions do not view Trong as a threat to their long-term race to power, said Nguyen at Control Risks. “He can be a kind of compromise figure,” she said.

There were times during Trong’s second term where the future of his rule seemed uncertain. He disappeared from public view for nearly a month in 2019 with an undisclosed illness. He has since appeared visibly frail at official meetings and often requires assistance to walk but has maintained his command of the party and outmaneuvered rivals.

He has also demonstrated mental strength, delivering a wide-ranging 78-minute speech at the opening of the party congress last week.

By Sanjida Jannat

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