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Vietnam party chief Trong formally named president

74-year-old becomes country's first leader to hold both roles since Ho Chi Minh

Nguyen Phu Trong   © Reuters

HO CHI MINH CITY -- Vietnamese lawmakers elected Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong as president, making him the first leader to hold both titles since the nation's founder, Ho Chi Minh.

On Oct. 23, the second day of the National Assembly's monthlong session, 476 members of parliament voted for Trong, with one objecting. He took an oath of office after the result was announced.

The party's central committee formally nominated the 74-year-old earlier this month following the death of previous president Tran Dai Quang in September.

The election highlights a shift that is comparable to the centralization of power in China under Xi Jinping. However, Trong's role is likely to be more limited than that of the Chinese president and party general secretary.

"The election of Mr. Trong to the position of president is a temporary solution because the current leadership in Vietnam has not agreed on a suitable person for that position," said Ngo Vinh Long, a professor of history at the University of Maine in the U.S. "He might want to imitate Xi Jinping's model, but the current situation in Vietnam will not allow him to seize power as Xi Jinping did."

The one-party state is led by the Communist Party of Vietnam. Politburo members hold four top leadership positions, including chair of the National Assembly, prime minister, president and party general secretary, which is generally considered the highest position.

Born in Hanoi, Trong studied literature at Hanoi General University, before becoming a party member in 1968. He was editor-in-chief of Tap Chi Cong San (Communist Review magazine) before chairing the National Assembly from 2006 to 2011.

Trong became party leader in 2011. During his tenure, he has headed an anti-corruption campaign that rooted out and imprisoned followers of former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. There are suspicions that he was behind the kidnapping of a Vietnamese official in Germany in 2016 -- an episode that created tension between Hanoi and Berlin.

Analysts do not expect Trong to try to create a cult of personality. Instead, he is likely to continue his anti-graft campaign that has targeted banks, credit agencies, state-owned enterprises as well as high-level army, party and government officials.

Trong, front right, helps carry the coffin of late President Tran Dai Quang at a state funeral in Hanoi on Sept. 27.   © AP

"Trong's agenda will not change," said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. "But the scope and intensity of his anti-corruption and party-building campaigns will increase."

Thayer added that Trong's holding of the highest party and national posts appears to be an "ad hoc arrangement" -- not a formal merger or combination of the two offices.

Pham Chi Dung, an independent journalist who used to be a party member, said the "unusual and unconventional" move may be aimed at securing an official national position that Trong can wield in talks with international leaders.

Trong is lobbying for a trip to the U.S. to talk with President Donald Trump about bilateral trade and the South China Sea, according to people familiar with his plans. The new president would like to make the trip before the end of the year.

Vietnam is one of several nations that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

While the merger of the roles is unlikely to impact economic policy, critics warn that the concentration of power will create a more autocratic political system. Trong may now be in a position to advance proteges to key government and military roles.

"What we're witnessing will weaken, if not erode, the informal system of checks and balances that has been in place since the adoption of the country's constitution in 1992," Thayer said.


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