Everything You Need To Know About Vietnam’s 13th National Party Congress

Trinh Huu Long
Trinh Huu Long

This article is mainly based on Tran Ha Linh’s “Mọi điều bạn cần biết về đại hội toàn quốc của Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam,” published in Luật Khoa Magazine, a sister publication of The Vietnamese, on January 15, 2021.

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Political party conventions are part of a country’s politics, but in Vietnam, it’s a special part. It’s not about the parties nominating candidates for public offices, but rather the only legally operated political party in the country deciding the government’s top seats and the country’s direction.

No one needs to call the party by its full name. Often, people call it “the Party”, or “Đảng”; sometimes “our Party”, or “Đảng ta”. The word “Đảng” (Party) is almost always written with a capital “Đ”. Thus, unlike how Americans call the Democratic Party’s conventions the “DNC” and the Republican Party’s conventions the “RNC”, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s conventions, or congresses, are often called “the Party Congress” (Đại hội Đảng). Say it to anyone in Vietnam and they know exactly what you mean.

Now, the next congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is approaching. Here is everything you need to know to understand the event.

What is “the Party Congress?”

The Party Congress, or its full name, the National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, is “the highest governing body” of the Party as stated in its charter. The Party Congress  makes the most important decisions relating to Party leadership and direction as follows:

  • It reviews the implementation of the Congress’ previous term’s resolutions;
  • It determines the next term’s direction and policies;
  • It determines whether or not to amend the Party’s two highest instruments: the Party Platform and Charter.
  • It decides the number of members of the Party Central Committee and elects the next term’s members.

How often does the Congress take place?

Every five years as you may have heard?

Not really. The party has only held 12 congresses throughout the 91 years of its existence. The approaching one is the 13th Party Congress. That means one congress every seven years on average.

CPV congresses have only taken place every five years since the 6th Party Congress in 1986, the one that shifted the country’s direction away from a centrally planned economy towards capitalism with a widely known grand policy called “Đổi Mới” (Renovation). The previous congresses were held inconsistently in 1935, 1951, 1960, 1976, and 1982, mainly due to armed conflicts and wars with the French, the Americans, and the Chinese.

How long is a Congress?

The 13th Party Congress will run for nine days, from January 25 to February 2, 2021, in Hanoi.

The previous congresses lasted four to nine days.

Who participates in the Congress?

A total of 1,587 delegates are coming to the capital to attend the 13th Party Congress, representing 5.1 million Party members, according to the CPV’s head of External Affairs.

They come from the Party’s committees in provinces, central government bodies, state-owned corporations, the military, the police, etc. Among the delegates, 194 are entitled to attend the Congress without having been elected, while another 15 delegates are appointed. The rest are elected.

Often, identities of delegates reflect one of the most popular concepts of the party’s governance: proportional representation, or cơ cấu. As a Communist party that claims to strongly uphold values such as equality for all, the proportional representation concept aims to make sure that delegates represent all groups within society, including from different classes, geographic regions, different genders, ethnicities, religions, occupations, branches of government, representatives from civil society – who are heavily controlled by the government, and the private sector. This broad membership makes the Party Congress look more representative and more legitimate on the surface while not actually having a more meaningful and substantial representation.

How does the Congress elect the Party leadership?

Do the Party’s congresses elect the top party leaders? It always looks like that, but it is not true, and many people have a misconception of how the Party leadership is elected.

One needs to take a look at the CPV’s Central Committee Decision No. 244 to understand how the party’s elections work. And it turns out that the congresses only elect members of the Central Committee. The Central Committee, in turn, elects members of the Politburo, the general secretary, and members of the Disciplinary Committee during the Congress .

The Congress will elect around 200 members of the Central Committee per the previous term’s Central Committee’s proposal, including some 20 alternate members who have the right to participate in the Committee’s conferences, but have no voting rights. The current Party leadership will introduce this proposal to the Congress, and the delegates will have to approve it before the Congress moves on to elect members of the Committee. The list of candidates consists of people nominated by the previous term’s Central Committee, people nominated by delegates at the Congress, and self-nominated candidates.

Due to the Party’s principle of democratic centralism (nguyên tắc tập trung dân chủ) and the internal culture of making decisions collectively rather than individually, it’s rare to see delegates seeking candidacy themselves. Most candidates nominated at the Congress must be approved by their own delegations.

After being elected, members of the Central Committee will convene  its first conference, called hội nghị trung ương, to elect around 15 members of the Politburo (Bộ Chính trị) – a party body that is considered the most powerful group of Vietnamese politicians. Again, the electoral process is pretty much the same as is an election in the Central Committee.

The general secretary,  seen as the leader of the Party,  is the most powerful politician of the country, and is also elected by the Central Committee, chosen from among members of the Politburo. The seat has been held by Mr. Nguyễn Phú Trọng since 2011.

After finishing the election, members of the Central Committee return to the Congress to report the results in a plenary session. The new members of the Politburo will go to the stage amidst long applause, a lot of congratulations, and flowers being handed out. The newly-elected general secretary will make an inaugural speech, and later the closing remarks. A new five-year term begins.

By this time, the public knows who the members of “the gang of four” are, the top four Party members who share the four highest offices of the country: general secretary, president, prime minister, and chair of the National Assembly. The chief justice position, although the most powerful office of an entire branch of government, has never been important enough within Party ranks to be considered as a part of “the gang of four.” That says almost everything about how insignificant the judiciary is in Vietnam.

Does the Congress hold actual power as stated in the Party’s Charter?

Not really.

The agenda of the Congress is largely set by the previous term’s Central Committee. Delegates are elected or appointed under a process entirely controlled by the previous term’s Central Committee. The Committee also decides a set of qualifications for members of the next term’s Central Committee, Politburo, and even the general secretary position. Only those who meet the qualifications can be nominated to the Congress, and with a very high likelihood of being elected. The majority of candidates are nominated by the Committee.

For example, the 10th Party Congress in 2006 needed to elect 160 members for the Central Committee. There were 207 candidates approved by the Congress for the election, which included the majority of 174 candidates nominated solely by the previous term’s Central Committee. The other 31 out of 207 candidates were nominated by the Congress, and only 2 self-nominated candidates.

Often, the Central Committee holds conferences up until days just before the Congress to determine the proposal for the Congress agenda, including the lists of candidates for Party leadership. Take the 15th conference of the Central Committee as an example. This was the last conference of the current Committee, which took place on Jan 16-17, 2021, one week before the Congress and began to approve “special nominees” and other personnel issues. One of the “special nominees” is believed to be General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, 67, because he does not meet the age requirement (that a candidate be no older than 65) to be elected as a member of the Politburo. Furthermore, he is not eligible to seek a third consecutive term under the Party Charter, unless the Congress amends the Charter.

Drafted resolutions and any amendments to the Party’s platform are also prepared by the Central Committee.

The Central Committee’s agenda, in turn, is largely determined by the Politburo. Therefore, the Central Committee and the Politburo, not the Congress, hold most of the Party’s actual power. The Congress has been seen mainly as a rubber stamp institution within the Party, formally approving almost everything the Central Committee proposes.

What happens after the Congress?

Shortly after the Congress ends, the Politburo will begin to hold meetings to assign roles to its members. At that time, it will announce members in charge of the party’s other committees (except the Disciplinary Committee), the Party committees of the capital – Hanoi City, the Party committee of the leading economic city, Ho Chi Minh City, and so on.

Almost four months after the Congress concludes, on May 23, the nation’s general election will take place, electing members of the National Assembly – the legislative body of the central government. When the National Assembly convenes for its first session in June or July, we will see most members of the Central Committee holding representative seats, and the National Assembly will elect the Communist Party’s leaders for the offices of president, vice president, prime minister, deputy prime ministers, ministers, chair of the National Assembly, chief justice, chief prosecutor, and so forth.

By then, the entire electoral process, started more than a year earlier at the grassroots level of the Communist Party, will be completed.

PoliticsParty CongresspicksVCPVietnamese Communist Party

Trinh Huu Long

A journalist and democracy advocate at @luatkhoatapchi and @thevnmesemag magazines. He's also a co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, a nonprofit organization that runs The Vietnamese.