Vietnam’s president, Tran Dai Quang, one of the three most powerful leaders in the country despite his largely ceremonial role, died Friday at 61, according to state media.
Quang died in a military hospital in Hanoi after “utmost efforts to treat him by Vietnamese and foreign doctors and professors,” said an announcement on state media. It did not elaborate on his illness or the specific cause of his death.
His death opens up a power vacuum in the communist country, which has no paramount head of state. Power is shared between the president, the prime minister, the Communist Party chief and also the head of the legislature, the National Assembly.
Quang was active as recently as this week, when he attended a reception for a Chinese delegation. Last week, he hosted a visiting delegation from Cuba in Hanoi and met with Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi while she was in the Vietnamese capital for the World Economic Forum’s regional meeting in Southeast Asia.
Quang also hosted President Trump during his first state visit to Vietnam last year and before that President Barack Obama when he visited in 2016.
Rumors of Quang’s ill health had been swirling in recent months. Observers of Vietnamese politics say he had been doing less and was slowly fading from public view, likely because of his illness.
Though the presidency has been a largely ceremonial role, the exact iteration of this position and how much power it wields “depends largely on the personality” of the individual, said Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst specializing in Vietnam at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Quang’s death “creates a vacuum in the highest levels of power within the Politburo,” she said. “Who will come up and what’s next?”
Quang was born in a farming community in Ninh Binh, a province south of Hanoi. He attended a police college and quickly rose through party ranks in Vietnam’s powerful Politburo, the country’s main decision-making body. He was appointed Minister of Public Security in 2011, a position with wide-ranging powers including intelligence gathering. He was elected president in April 2016.
He is one of the few sitting presidents to die in office. The last was Ho Chi Minh, the communist revolutionary and Vietnam’s independence hero, who died as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s first president in 1969. The powers and role of the presidency has varied since.