By Kristina Jönsson
Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Lund University.
Elections tend to receive a lot of media attention these days—Laos being an obvious exception. Still, in recent months two elections have taken place in Laos, one to the National Assembly (NA) and one to the Party Congress. Even if they by nature do not deliver any major surprises, they still say something about politics in Laos.
The election to the Lao National Assembly was held on April 30. Out of 190 candidates 132 members were elected—all were pre-selected by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party except five independent candidates. Of the elected members 31.8% were from the government and 68.18% from local authorities (75% were male and 25% female, a bit short of the goal to have 30% women in the Assembly). According to the newspaper Vientiane Times, the election results were quite impressive—99.6% of the eligible voters cast their ballots (!), and the “voters showed great enthusiasm in exercising their political rights to ensure qualified personnel elected to the NA”. In June the National Assembly will formally adopt the new government.
But those being familiar with Lao politics know that the real policymakers were elected already in March at the 9th Party Congress. At the congress 576 delegates represented 191,780 party members nationwide (out of a 6 million population), and they re-elected the 75-year old Choummaly Sayasone—also president of the country—as party secretary general. Members to the Politburo (11) and the Central Committee (61) were also elected. Interestingly, an increasing number of the elected members hold doctoral degrees.
It is quite obvious that the elections, which take place every five years, will not lead to any radical changes in politics or in power dynamics. However, it is expected that a new and younger generation of party technocrats gradually will take over the leadership of the ruling party, which probably will allow for more open discussions. Already now corruption and complaints of inefficient implementation of laws are being publicly discussed. But of course political opposition is still not allowed and media is under state control.
Economic circle in Indochina. Click here for larger picture. Picture by Kristina Jönsson.
A perhaps more significant dimension of Lao politics is the relationship with China and Vietnam. In December 2010, the previous Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh unexpectedly resigned, and Thongsing Thammavong, previously National Assembly president, assumed the post. Some analysts say the change indicated a shift from China towards Vietnam—while others say that would be to miss nuances of Lao politics. There could be some truth in it though, as the presence of China in Laos has increased in recent years through business collaboration and large infrastructure projects but also in other fields, such as education and training. The Lao population has voiced their concern about the “invasion” from the big neighbour in the north, and it is possible that the leadership wanted to address this in some way.
The biggest challenge facing Lao policymakers today is how to develop the country economically. Laos is one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia, and the aim of the government is to lift Laos from the least-developed nation status by 2020—primarily through selling off natural resources, such as timber, mining and hydropower. At the party congress in March, the party approved measures to “boost” the development (further). Laos has experienced a high economic growth the last few years and is expected to continue this year (7%- 8% GDP growth rate). But many worry about the management of the big influx of foreign investments and about environmental consequences. Take the Xayaburi dam building for example. Laos wants to become “the battery of the region” through the exploitation of hydropower—primarily by selling electricity to Thailand and Vietnam. However, the neighbouring countries, and environmentalists alike, have increasingly challenged this strategy. There are already four dams in China (and four more are planned), but Xayabury would be the first dam to affect the lower Mekong and the consequences are feared to be devastating. A report by the Mekong River Commission, of which Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are members, states that 23-100 fish species are endangered and consequently also the livelihood and food security of the people in the region, as fish migration will be disrupt. In addition, soil will not reach the presently very fertile Vietnamese Mekong delta. Laos has reluctantly agreed to postpone the construction of the Xayaburi dam after the criticism, but for how long is not clear. The plan is to develop 70 hydro projects, 10 are already in operation and five are under construction—only in Laos!
The pressure on the government is mounting. Economic development is a top priority, but the road towards a higher income level is bumpy. Inequalities are increasing in Laos, even if poverty reduction has been successful at an aggregate level, and the government eventually needs to cater for all people not to loose legitimacy. In other words, the government needs to balance between economic development of the country and the development of its people—and to keep up good relations with the neighbouring countries at the same time. We may not expect any “flower revolution” in a foreseeable future, but that does not mean that there are no (political) changes in Laos. They are just expressed in a more subtle way than in many other places.