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Vietnam's top security official To Lam elected as president as anti-corruption drive rocks political elites

As the country's top security official, Lam led the communist party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong's 'blazing furnace' anti-corruption probe that has rocked Vietnam's political establishment. Several politicians, including Lam's predecessor Vo Van Thuong, have stepped down due to the campaign.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Hanoi Updated on: May 22, 2024 8:48 IST
Vietnam, TO lam, Vietnam president
Image Source : AP To Lam swears in the position after he was elected as the president at the National Assembly in Vietnam on Wednesday

Hanoi: Vietnam's National Assembly on Wednesday confirmed the country's top security official, To Lam, as its new president. This comes two months after Lam's predecessor Vo Van Thuong resigned amid an ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has shaken the country's political establishment and business elites.

Vietnam's presidency is largely ceremonial, but experts say the new role puts Lam in a “very strong position” to become the next communist party general secretary, the most important political position in the country. Lam's appointment comes at a pivotal time after Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the ruling communist party launched a "blazing furnace" crackdown on graft, under which hundreds of officials have been investigated and many forced to quit, including the former president Nguyen Xuan Phuc and two deputy prime ministers.

The position of president in Vietnam is largely ceremonial and ranks third in the political hierarchy. Thuong resigned in March over an alleged violation of party rules, which "negatively impacted public opinion, affecting the reputation of the Party, State and him personally". The government statement did not elaborate on Thuong's shortcomings, but major leadership changes in the one-party state have recently been all linked to the wide-ranging "blazing furnace" anti-bribery campaign.

Thuong, 53, quit days after Vietnamese police announced the arrest for alleged corruption a decade ago of a former head of central Vietnam's Quang Ngai province, who served while Thuong was party chief there. He had also been a senior party official of economic hub Ho Chi Minh City, which has been rocked by a multi-billion-dollar long-running financial scam.

Who is To Lam?

Lam spent more than four decades in the Ministry of Public Security before becoming the minister in 2016. He oversaw police and intelligence operations over a period when rights groups say basic liberties have been systematically suppressed, and its secret service was accused of violating international law.

His rise took place while Vietnam’s politburo lost six of its 18 members amid the expanding anti-graft campaign, including two former presidents and Vietnam’s parliamentary head. As Vietnam’s top security official, Lam has led Trong’s sweeping anti-graft campaign. He was behind many of the investigations into high-profile politicians, said Nguyen Khac Giang, an analyst at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

High-profile resignations in Vietnam

Last month, Vuong Dinh Hue, the chairman of Vietnam's Parliament, stepped down from his position over "violations and shortcomings", marking a new political turbulence in the anti-corruption campaign. Vietnam’s Communist Party accepted what was called Hue’s voluntary resignation while noting that investigators found that Hue had “violated Party regulations, and his violations have affected the reputation of the Party, the State and himself.” 

Hue served for over three years as the chairman of Vietnam's national assembly, which is the fourth most important post in the country after the President, the Prime Minister and the head of the Communist Party. His resignation took place days after his assistant Pham Thai Ha was arrested on charges of abusing his position and power for personal gain, according to various state media outlets.

The anti-bribery campaign in Vietnam is aimed at stamping out widespread corruption but is also suspected by critics to be a tool for political infighting. Foreign investors and diplomats have repeatedly blamed the campaign for slowing down decisions in a country which is already grappling with cumbersome bureaucracy.

This unprecedented instability in Vietnam’s political system has spooked investors as the country tries to position itself as an alternative for companies looking to shift their supply chains away from China. A flood of foreign investment, especially in the manufacturing of high-tech products like smartphones and computers, raised expectations it could join the “Four Asian Tigers” — Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, whose economies underwent rapid industrialization and posted high growth rates.

Real estate tycoon sentenced to death 

In a dramatic development, real estate tycoon and billionaire Truong My Lan was sentenced to death last month by a court in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City in the country's largest financial fraud case, according to local reports. Lan, 67, was accused of fraud amounting to $12.5 billion - nearly 3 per cent of the country's GDP in 2022 - as the chair of the real estate company Van Thinh Phat Holdings Group.

Lan has filed an appeal challenging her initial verdict, along with 50 other defendants who have sought a reduction in their sentences, according to various reports. She reportedly controlled the Saigon Joint Stock Commercial Bank illegally between 2012 to 2022 to siphon off funds amounting to 304 trillion dong ($12.5 billion) through thousands of ghost companies and by paying bribes to government officials. Lan's arrest in October 2022 was among the most high-profile in the ongoing anti-corruption drive in Vietnam.

Last year, when former president Nguyen Xuan Phuc quit after the party blamed him for "violations and wrongdoing" by officials under his control, it took one month and a half for lawmakers to appoint Thuong as his successor. Investors who mostly praise political stability may not take well the premature departure of two presidents in about a year.

(with inputs from agencies)

ALSO READ | Vietnam's head of parliament resigns amid 'blazing furnace' anti-corruption probe

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