(Bloomberg) -- It was a calm Sunday morning in a park near Berlin’s iconic Victory Column when a sudden loud shriek startled pedestrians. They turned to see a black-haired man being dragged violently into the back of a car.

Trinh Xuan Thanh — former chairman of Vietnam’s state-owned PetroVietnam Construction JSC — was then driven south via Prague to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, according to a German court ruling last year describing the audacious 2017 kidnapping. 

Thanh was next seen in a subdued state being held up by his captors outside a hotel in the city where a high-level Vietnamese delegation dined with local officials. They jokingly gestured to unsuspecting Slovak officials that their compatriot had too much to drink.

The two men later carried Thanh into a vehicle in the delegation’s convoy, which was escorted by local police to the airport tarmac. Joining him inside a waiting plane, according to the court document, was Vietnam’s minister of public security and a rising star in the ruling Communist Party: To Lam.

About a week later, Thanh was on Vietnamese state television confessing to mismanagement and embezzlement that caused the company to lose around $147 million, crimes that saw him receive separate life sentences in prison. The Vietnamese government denied Berlin’s account that the executive was forcibly returned, saying instead he turned himself in. 

Lam has not publicly acknowledged any involvement in the Thanh case. He’d go on to turn his attention to much bigger targets, spearheading an anti-corruption campaign that has ensnared hundreds of officials, including two deputy prime ministers and at least one president. On Friday, another top leader resigned, days after his assistant was detained in relation to a corruption probe.

Within Vietnam’s opaque political system, Lam, 66, has emerged as one of the most important figures apart from 80-year-old General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, whose ailing health has triggered a rare succession battle in one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant economies. 

Lam is seen by analysts as a potential candidate for Trong’s job when it comes up. His name has also been mentioned once again as a possibility for president after Vo Van Thuong resigned last month over unspecified violations, though it’s unclear he’d even want the largely ceremonial post.

Observers say either scenario would likely see little change from Vietnam’s foreign policy balancing act between the US and China. Regardless of the outcome, his role as the primary enforcer of Trong’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign has in some ways made him even more powerful.

“The Ministry of Public Security is now very important for politicians to jockey for power,” said Le Hong Hiep, a former foreign ministry official who is now a senior fellow at the Vietnam Studies Program of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “And to suppress or control other political rivals because of the big anti-corruption campaign.”

Political Succession

Unlike the personality-driven politics found in some western democracies, Vietnamese government officials are functionaries of the Communist regime’s strictly enforced consensus-based rule. As the public security minister since 2016, Lam’s law enforcement responsibilities have included leading the sweeping anti-graft effort that saw at least 459 party members disciplined over corruption last year alone.

Thuong last month became the second president in little more a year to step aside after his predecessor assumed “political responsibility” for the “violations and shortcomings” involving two graft cases. Days after Thuong resigned, Lam was urging agencies to “step up” investigations into major corruption cases and further reduce “social order” crimes by 5%, according to a government readout.

The decision on who will be president could be made as early as this week with other likely names in the mix, while the party chief’s job is expected to be available when Trong steps aside in early 2026, if not sooner.

“I don’t think anybody would quibble that he’s aligned himself close with the party secretary general who has health issues,” Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said of Lam. When the party chooses leaders, they have to “judge exceptionally and To Lam could make a case because of all the people they’ve netted.”

A spokesman at To Lam’s ministry did not respond to several phone calls requesting comment.

‘Blatant Violation’

Lam’s career in Vietnam’s public security spans five decades, first as a student at People’s Security University in 1974. He officially joined the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1982, rising through the ranks to become a two-time Politburo member. He was promoted to general in 2019 when Trong concurrently held the presidency following the 2018 death of President Tran Dai Quang from illness. 

Read: Vietnam’s Communist Party Chief Poised for Unprecedented Power

Lam currently also sits on the party’s central steering committee for anti-corruption.

In 2017 he published a 471-page book entitled: “The People - The Decisive Factor in Winning the Struggle to Protect Security and Order,” in which he stresses the need to deepen international economic cooperation and apply the lessons of China’s national security model as a means of protecting socialism in Vietnam.

One of the longest-serving ministers of public security, Lam’s ascent is by no means assured given the fluid state of Vietnam’s secretive politics. While sources within the party agree he is both feared and respected across the board, it’s unclear he’d have the required support of the National Assembly to get a promotion.

The state meanwhile continues to make an example of officials — including Thuong — who in the party’s view have either stoked poor public opinion or otherwise harmed its reputation. Lam found himself in an uncomfortable situation in 2021 after TikTok footage emerged of Turkish celebrity chef Nusret Gokce, known as Salt Bae, presenting a gold-leaf encrusted steak before feeding it to the official in his London restaurant.

The footage triggered an uproar on Vietnamese social media, with many questioning how a top official could be indulging in extravagant meals during an anti-corruption campaign at the height of the pandemic. Neither Lam nor the government commented on the video.

Thanh’s kidnapping also created a diplomatic spat. Germany temporarily suspended its strategic partnership with the Southeast Asian nation calling the abduction an “unprecedented and blatant violation” of German and international law. Two of the men involved were eventually apprehended in Europe and sentenced to prison, with one receiving a lighter sentence for admitting guilt in working with Vietnamese intelligence agencies.

Slovakia also reportedly threatened to freeze relations with Vietnam over the case.

While Vietnam disputes the accusations against it, what isn’t contested is the party’s willingness to root out graft at great costs. The sweeping effort has, for example, led to a slowing of the nation’s bond and real estate markets and rattled government workers, delaying approval of projects for fear of being swept up in police investigations.

As a major general at the Ministry of Public Security in 2009, Lam accused the US of “interference in Vietnam’s internal affairs” when the Obama administration called for the release of a lawyer, according to a US diplomatic cable posted on WikiLeaks.

Lam also had a contentious meeting with a US official the year before over the alleged beating of an American journalist by the Vietnamese police, according to another cable. Vietnam denied the allegation. During the meeting, Lam promised to “look into it” and deal with any wrongdoing seriously.

On the one hand, Vietnam’s anti-corruption drive has helped lift its ranking from 113th in 2016 to 83rd last year in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. His ministry also drafted a controversial cybersecurity decree requiring companies to store local users’ data in the country.

In any event, his reputation for ruthlessness may be more of a function of his job in a Communist state than anything else.

“Now he is seen as someone who is a bit scary,” said Hiep of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “But that’s his job — he has to do so to stay in the position. If he’s transferred to another position his approach may be different.”

--With assistance from Karin Matussek and John Boudreau.

(This story was originally published on April 26, 2024. Vietnam’s National Assembly elected To Lam, former minister of public security, as the country’s next president on May 22.)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.