Vietnam’s president and former prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, resigned this week for standing by while corruption festered under two of his deputy prime ministers, both of whom were recently removed from their posts. While the president is not the most powerful position in the Vietnamese government, Phuc’s ouster is nonetheless remarkable. It raises questions about what is ultimately motivating the country’s ongoing anti-corruption drive and what it might signal about where the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is headed politically.
Crackdown on COVID-19 corruption
Phuc’s resignation is the latest in a crackdown on those accused of illicitly profiting from COVID-19-related measures. More than 100 officials and businesspeople have been arrested for alleged crimes related to the distribution and price-gouging of COVID-19 test kits. Similarly, 37 people, including some police and high-ranking officials, are being investigated for extortion over arrangements to repatriate Vietnamese nationals during the height of the pandemic. While the anti-corruption campaign has been underway for years, it has only recently ensnared people in the highest positions of power.
Shrinking space for moderate voices
Some observers speculate that the wave of arrests and resignations is more about cleaning house than bringing criminals to justice. They suspect self-serving factors are at play, including CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong using the campaign to remove his rivals and consolidate political power. Trong is a hardliner serving an unprecedented third term as general secretary, the most powerful position in the government. As such, removing more moderate voices like Phuc clears the way for him to steer the country’s politics away from greater openness. Another suggestion is that allowing senior officials like Phuc to resign, rather than face trial, is a way to show that the CPV is holding violators accountable while also insulating the Party from reputational damage.