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The last few months have seen a number of personnel changes in Laos' leadership. While it will take time to gauge the real impact of these changes, the general expectation is that government policy will remain broadly the same. Indeed, any shift in government approach is likely to entail changes in style, rather than substance.
At the Eighth Party Congress of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) in April, 83 year-old General Secretary Khamtay Siphandone stepped down from his post and the Politburo. While a number of other Politburo resignations were anticipated, these ultimately did not transpire. However, Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavat and Pany Yathothu were two new additions to the Politburo. Pany Yathothu's appointment marks both the first time that a woman has been elected to the Politburo, and the first time that an ethnic Hmong has been given such a senior position in the LPRP.
Also at the LPRP Congress, Choumaly Sayasone (aged 70) was elected new LPRP General Secretary - the most important position in Laos. A serving general in the Lao military, Choumaly Sayasone has previously been commander of the army, held the defence ministry portfolio, and first joined the Politburo in 1986. Choumaly Sayasone is also widely regarded as a close associate of Khamtay Siphandone, and so his appointment suggests a smooth transition.
Following the Congress, public elections were held in May - roughly five months earlier than originally anticipated - for 115 seats in the National Assembly, of which just two were won by independent (ie, non-LPRP member) candidates. It was reported that 175 candidates stood for election, of which less than 45% were delegates of the previous National Assembly. In the end, roughly 38% of newly elected members had sat in the previous National Assembly, and 62% were new members.
In early June the new National Assembly met for its first full session. The main item on the Assembly's agenda was to endorse a new government line up. Following in Khamtay Siphandone's shoes, LPRP General Secretary Choumaly Sayasone was also elected State President, thereby holding the two posts simultaneously.
The post of Prime Minister went to Bouasone Bouphavanh (aged 52), replacing Boungnang Vorachit. Previously a deputy prime minister, Bouasone Bouphavanh, was the only person to rise up in the Politburo rankings (from 11th to 7th) at the earlier LPRP Congress, and so his appointment as premier came as little surprise.
After his appointment to the Politburo, Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavat was made one of four deputy premiers, and head of the government's standing committee. The new foreign minister is Thongloun Sisoulith, who is also a deputy premier.
Following a pilot merger exercise in Vientiane, a decision was made to fully consolidate the Ministry of Commerce with the Ministry of Industry & Handicrafts. The head of this expanded ministry is to be Nam Vignaket, and will presumably be leading the government's efforts to gain WTO entry by the set deadline of 2010.
A decision was also made to create a wholly new ministerial portfolio for the energy and mining sectors, headed by Boviengkham Vongdala. This reflects the increasing importance of these sectors to the Lao economy, as exemplified by such large projects as the Nam Theun II hydropower project and Oxiana's Sepon gold and copper mine.
WATCHPOINT: Watch to see how these changes impact, if at all, on the momentum of economic reform and business liberalisation efforts. Also watch to see if changes are subsequently made at the sub-national level, including in the appointment of provincial governors.
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