The swearing in of Nguyen Phu Trong as president marks the culmination of a remarkable political revival for the 74-year-old Communist party leader.
Trong is the first Vietnamese leader since Ho Chi Minh to lead both the party and the state. His rapid ascent puts the seal on a new period of authoritarianism that threatens Vietnam’s long nurtured system of collective leadership.
Trong turned the tables on his opponents at the 12th National Congress of the Communist party in January 2016, upsetting predictions that he would step down as general secretary.
His appointment to the presidency was backed by 99.8% of the vote in the National Assembly – an indication of the grip Trong and his allies now hold over the party and state apparatus.
He described the appointment as a huge honour and a heavy responsibility.
The presidency had come to be seen as a largely ceremonial position, but it still carries considerable powers of patronage and is likely to enhance Trong’s personal prestige and his presence on the international stage.
Trong is now expected to press ahead with an anti-corruption campaign that has swept potential rivals and their supporters from high office and positions in state companies.
He can also expect even less restraint in his efforts to crush independent bloggers and civil society activists who have sought to question the absolute power of the Communist party.
State controlled media have been anxious to play down the implications of the consolidation of the post of Communist party leader and state president.
They have presented it as a pragmatic move that will enhance Vietnam’s ability to deal with foreign countries, given the confusion inherent in its system of collective leadership. The official word is that the Chinese style amalgamation of the two top posts is not necessarily permanent.
The Communist party newspaper, Nhan Dan, quoted a constitutional expert as saying that the system of collective leadership remains in place.
It said that any decisions of the general-secretary and the president, whoever holds the post, must first be underwritten by the politburo.
Trong’s unquestioned control over the politburo, however, rather negates any expectation it could act as a break on his powers.
The other leadership positions – of prime minister and chairman of the National Assembly – had already come to be seen as secondary given the growing power of Trong and his associates.
The mild-mannered and grandfatherly Trong is no-one’s idea of a rapacious populist intent on personal aggrandisement.
He has won a degree of popular enthusiasm for his relentless denunciations of corruption and promises to clean up the party.
However, he has shown a previously unsuspected degree of vigour and ruthlessness over the last three years, and has used his powers to try to turn back the clock on Vietnam’s political development.
He clearly thinks that Vietnam is best run by an ideologically pure Communist party that will brook no challenge to its authority and will follow his own instructions to the letter.