Laos: To The Polls


[Name and address withheld. Ed.]

On 24 February, Laos held national elections for its 107-seat National Assembly. But the results of the polls were known as early as mid-January, when it became clear that all but one of the 166 candidates approved to stand for the elections were card-carrying members of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). Indeed, two candidates were members of the LPRP’s 11-person politburo, and a further 33 were members of its 42-person central committee. In the previous elections of late 1998, just one of four independent candidates was successful in being elected to the National Assembly. Given this outcome, many observers continue to regard Laos’ highest legislature as little more than a rubber stamping operation, giving a thin veneer of democratic credibility to the LPRP’s monopoly on power since 1975.

All prospective candidates wishing to stand for election to the National Assembly must first gain approval from the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), which is closely linked to the LPRP. (The LFNC could be regarded as Laos’ equivalent of the Fatherland Front in Vietnam.) But the fact that just one independent candidate was successful in standing for the recent elections comes as a mild surprise. Speaking in Bangkok in late December, Lao Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad intimated that the leadership was seeking to increase popular participation in politics and administration, and that a committee had recently been set up to study possible constitutional amendments that might allow this to occur. One obvious way gradually to generate greater popular input would be to allow more non-LPRP members to stand for election to the National Assembly, and allow assembly delegates to take on more vigorous debate of government policy. This has broadly been the approach taken by Laos’s fraternal neighbour and ideological mentor, Vietnam, over the last decade or so, with some considerable success.

Such a process might also be expected to alleviate pressure from overseas on the clear lack of political plurality in Laos, notably from the European Union and the United States. On 7 February, a number of US legislators, from both sides of the house, introduced a resolution calling on the Lao government to ensure that ‘all adult citizens … are able to vote and run for public office regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, economic standing, or political affiliation’.

The National Assembly elections are being held roughly ten months before the end of the current five-year session. The reason behind this seems to be that a five-year economic development plan, approved by the Seventh Congress of the LPRP in March 2001, is now ready to proceed, and the National Assembly will be expected to focus on a tranche of new laws necessary to make this plan a reality. Hence the need to get the elections out of the way now. The development plan broadly dovetails with economic reform measures that Vientiane has recently agreed with both the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, and that are attached to loan programs.

WATCHPOINT: Look out for a revival of the economic reform process in Laos during 2002, as the new economic development plan starts to be implemented.


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