Vo Van Thuong, elected as Vietnam’s new president on March 2, has begun his tenure with a series of diplomatic trips overseas.
The position is largely ceremonial, but he is seen as being close to Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and he could succeed Trong as soon as 2026, when Trong’s current term ends.
Thuong first went to neighboring Laos for a two-day trip in April. Laos and Vietnam are two of the world's five remaining communist nations, and while there, Thuong announced a $1 million gift to Laos, agreed to boost security and defense on the country's shared border, and signed agreements on cooperation in science, technology and innovation.
The trip was the first in a string of planned appearances. Thuong headed to the United Kingdom on May 5 for the coronation of King Charles III, he will travel to Japan in July, the United States in November, and there is potential for a China visit, said Hanoi-based Ha Hoang Hop, associate senior fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
"Thuong has all the big opportunities in going around the four top positions — that includes the position of general secretary," Hop said, referring to the country's four "pillars" — the positions of general secretary, president, prime minister, and chair of the National Assembly.
Thuong is an ally of Trong, who has been party general secretary since 2011. Nearly 80, Trong sidestepped the normal two-term limit and the age cap of 65 when he retained the general secretaryship for the 2021-2026 period. Trong has spearheaded the current crackdown on corruption and promoted communist philosophy while leading the country.
With a background steeped in party ideology in line with Trong's mission, Thuong is believed to be one of three primary candidates for the position of general secretary at the 2026 Party congress.
His future is uncertain, though, in part because the brunt of his career was spent in Ho Chi Minh City. The city has been the epicenter of the graft clampdown, and Thuong's ties to the metropolis undermine his high standing in the Communist Party. This, combined with his absence of popular appeal or a large network outside the southern city could be a hindrance to his political fortunes.
For some, Thuong's rise is a disappointing turn. Living in bustling Ho Chi Minh City, an activist described Thuong as an unwanted replica of Trong. He said that for him, Thuong represents further repression of free expression and leaders more attuned to communist dicta than practical matters.
"I don't believe Thuong can do anything outstanding," the activist said, speaking anonymously because of potential repercussions for discussing political matters. "He is just a small Nguyen Phu Trong."
"All their lives they preach communist [and] socialist tenets, teach revolutionary ethics and know nothing about basic things that a politician must know, like macroeconomics [or] law," he added. "It's terrible. It's a shame for Vietnamese people."
Thoung's rise to president is a result of the ongoing “blazing furnace” anti-corruption campaign, which led to the downfall of Thuong's predecessor, former President Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Phuc was forced to resign in January, shaking the country's reputation for political stability. He was accused by the party of "violations and wrongdoing" over family ties to the inflation of COVID-19 test kit prices by the Viet A Technology Corporation, which led to the misappropriation of millions of dollars of state funds.
At 52, Thuong is the youngest face in the Politburo, the country's top decision-making body. His career has been as a "party man," noted Nguyen Khac Giang, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Thuong studied Marxist-Leninist philosophy in college and went on to become head of the party’s propaganda department, deputy standing secretary of Ho Chi Minh City's Party Committee, and secretary of the Quang Ngai Provincial Party Committee in the central region.
Although Thuong is one of few in the running for the party's top position, he has had a low-key career. Without significant achievements, it is difficult for Thuong to advance based on merit, Giang said, and he lacks a strong personality and network.
Further, Giang contends Thuong’s history in Ho Chi Minh City is a detriment, as his service was concurrent with that of city People’s Committee head Le Thanh Hai, who ran the metropolis as what has been described as a "fiefdom."
Under Hai, the city's top leadership was akin to Hai and allies enriching themselves primarily through real estate ventures. But as Trong's anti-corruption efforts picked up speed, Hai was forced into retirement.
“The most obvious obstacle for him to become the party chief is his connection to the Ho Chi Minh [City] gang,” Giang said. “Most of his connections are from Ho Chi Minh City where the anti-corruption campaign was hit hardest. … It makes it very unlikely for him to get support from other party members.”
While questions remain regarding Thuong's political future, public sentiment is mixed.
The Ho Chi Minh City activist said Thuong made empty promises about opening dialogue while serving in Ho Chi Minh City, and Vietnamese authorities continue to punish criticism of the regime.
"He used to say that the Communist Party was not afraid of having discussions, because [it is] only through discussion that we can attain the truth. But these discussions never took place, and all dissidents went to jail," he said.
"I never have any belief in Communist officials like Thuong or Trong. They do not know anything other than communism."
A Ho Chi Minh City native in her 20s said she sees little point to following the change in leadership, as she doesn't see any opportunity to have her voice heard.
"I don’t really care about politics," she said. "For the most part, we’re not a part of it. It’s a fixed system, they do what they want to do."
On the other hand, a 26-year-old, also in Ho Chi Minh City, was more positive.
"I believe Mr. Vo Van Thuong is a good person and will do anything to make things right, especially for the sake of Vietnamese people," he said.
"Surely he will be an important person in Vietnam in coming years," he said.