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The Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) met for its Eighth Party Congress in Vientiane on 18 March 2006, with its customary secrecy. The Congress was announced at the last minute, and took place behind closed doors. It went off with the usual stage-managed smoothness, because all decisions had been thrashed out over the preceding several months.
The Congress listened to a long political report by outgoing Party President Khamtai Siphandon, and a shorter economic report on progress over the five years since the Seventh Congress. But the principal item of business for the 498 delegates was the election, or rather endorsement, of a new 55-member Central Committee and 11-member Politburo.
Prior to the Congress there had been speculation that several elderly generals would stand down along with Khamtai. (One of those elected to the Seventh Politburo died in office.) When the new line-up was announced, however, the main surprise was that no one else had retired with Khamtai. The new Party president is General Choummali Sayason, a close comrade-in-arms of General Khamtai. There were only two new faces - the long-serving Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavat and Mrs Pany Yathothu, the first woman and first Hmong to be appointed to the Politburo. By contrast, a third of the Central Committee was replaced by younger comrades.
Within the Politburo only one member improved his relative standing, and that was Mr Bouason Bouphavan, who moved from eleven to seven, leapfrogging two of his colleagues. This places him in the best position to become the next prime minister. Since Bouason, like Choummali, is a protégé of Khamtai, it is likely that Khamtai's influence will continue to be felt within the Party.
Within the Central Committee, three members (Bunthong Chitmani, Sombat Yealyheu, and Thongban Sengaphon) received notable promotions, positioning them (at number 12, 13 and 14) for likely inclusion in the Ninth Politburo in five years' time. In the meantime, all three were named to the powerful Secretariat, along with Choummali, the present prime minister Bounyang Vorachit (who is likely to make way for Bouason), and generals Asang Laoly and Douangchai Pichit, in charge respectively of internal Party discipline and the defence ministry. The Secretariat is responsible for running the day-to-day affairs of the Party, but as the Party determines the policy of the state, its influence is extensive.
One point of interest is that the Party has not followed its previous policy of appointing all provincial governors to the Central Committee. Several ministers from key ministries have also not been included, suggesting that they may be due for retirement in the government reshuffle that will follow elections for the National Assembly at the end of April.
The new old line-up makes it quite clear that there will be no significant political reforms in Laos for the foreseeable future. The aging 'revolutionary generation' is still in control, with five of the six top places in the Politburo still filled by former military men. The Party has no intention of relinquishing its monopoly of power. This makes it unlikely that the culture of political patronage and corruption that has grown up over the last three decades will change. Khamtai's political report dutifully called for greater transparency and respect for the rule of law, but as the Party's power rests to a great extent on the patronage which it is in a position to disburse, progress on either count is likely to be glacial.
On a more positive note, what will also continue is the Party's commitment to the current free-market, investment-friendly economic policy. New major foreign investment projects (in mining, hydropower, etc) will be welcomed, not least because they promise steady revenue for the government, and so relieve pressure from aid donors to raise revenue collection from taxes, duties and charges. What the Eighth Congress shows is that the fact that Laos remains highly dependent on foreign aid is of far less concern to the Party leadership than that it retains its monopoly of power, for the continued benefit of the Party elite.
WATCHPOINT: Elections for the National Assembly are due 30 April. As all candidates must gain Party approval, and as in the current National Assembly only one deputy is not a member of the LPRP, the outcome is not in doubt. But watch for the new government line-up that the new Assembly will endorse. The likelihood is that changes in the government will be more substantial than changes to the Politburo.
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