Laos: The Current State of Politics in Laos

2005

Martin Stuart-Fox

Politics in the Lao People's Democratic Republic are purely an internal matter for the Lao People's Revolutionary Party. But that does not make politicking any less intense or important.

The LPRP still claims to be a Marxist-Leninist party, though its primary purpose these days is to maintain its own continued monopoly of power. To this end the Party has presided over a transition since the late 1980s from a socialist to a relatively free market economy. With the end of ideology has come a return to the traditional Lao politics of patronage, but within the confines of the Party.

The leading institutions of the Party are the Political Bureau and the Central Committee (CC). At present the Politburo is dominated by a group of aging army generals: six out of the surviving ten members (one has died) are former military men. Several of these, plus at least one non-military member, are expected to step down at the next Party Congress due in 2006. Politicking is particularly intense in the lead-up to the Congress, for membership of the Politburo provides superior opportunities to disburse patronage (in the usual forms of employment, promotion, government contracts, business opportunities, and so on.)

Membership of the Central Committee includes heads of powerful Party committees, government ministers, and the governors of all sixteen provinces, Vientiane municipality and the Xaisombun Special Region. (As CC members are elected by the Party Congress, which takes place every five years, changes in appointment are not reflected until the following Congress.) CC membership thus provides regional balance.

Politics in Laos are mainly a matter of balancing the interests of powerful figures in the Party, who act as the principal patrons for their extended families and 'clans' of dependents and supporters. In addition, the Party must balance regional interests, for provincial governors are powerful patrons in their own right, even though they may owe their positions to patronage at the highest level of the Party. Finally there is the military, the most powerful special interest group in Laos, which fears a reduction of influence both in the Politburo and the Party now that Laos is a member of ASEAN and at peace with all its neighbours.

As the jockeying for power and influence continues in the lead-up to the 2006 Party Congress, decisions on reform measures demanded by international lending institutions and aid donors are being set aside. For example, restructuring of loss-making state owned enterprises, some run by the military, is being delayed for fear that any decisions could open those responsible to criticism, and thus weaken their position in the Party.

This current reluctance to tackle needed reforms and the partial paralysis of government in Laos is likely to last until horse trading among senior Party leaders has determined the composition of the next Politburo and Central Committee. And that is likely to continue right up to the eve of the 2006 Congress.

WATCHPOINT: Expect little movement on the reform front during 2005 until the composition of the future political leadership is resolved at the 2006 Party Congress.

 

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