Elections in communist Laos promise little change

Laos held legislative elections Saturday that are expected to sweep in a younger generation of lawmakers but preserve the political status quo, since virtually all candidates owe allegiance to the all-powerful communist party that has ruled for 36 years.

The mountainous, landlocked country of 6.5 million people is one of the poorest in Asia. Its leaders are among the region's most secretive, tolerating almost no opposition and maintaining strict control over the media.

Its real policymakers were selected in March, when the communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party held its 9th congress, picking 75-year-old Choummaly Sayasone — also the country's president — for a second five-year term as party secretary general.

Voters chose Saturday among 190 candidates contesting 132 seats in the National Assembly, according to Laos' state news agency, which said results were not expected for at least a week.

Most candidates are members of the communist party, which has governed the single-party state since 1975. As a result, voters largely chose among personalities, not ideologies, and the elections were mainly expected to bring a new, younger generation into a government long dominated by aging revolutionaries who defeated a U.S.-backed regime three decades ago.

In recent years, the National Assembly "has approved 50 laws, bringing the total number to more than 90, a step toward building a state governed by the rule of law," the official Vientiane Times said Friday.

While the assembly is mainly a rubber stamp for the ruling party, "we can expect more younger people who have better education to be elected," said Adisorn Semyaem, a Laos specialist at the Institute of Asian Studies at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University.

He said younger lawmakers also joined the assembly in the last legislative elections in 2006, lending more substance to debates.

The assembly, for example, recently sought to exert a bigger role in approving major investment projects, particularly those by foreign investors and those seen to affect the environment and society, said Adisorn, who traveled to Laos to observe the vote.

The country's leaders have gradually liberalized the economy to encourage development. In January, Laos opened a modest stock market, hoping to attract capital to its largest enterprises and boost its economy.

Stronger economic growth has helped the communist party maintain its grip on power, said Simon Creak, a historian of Laos and Southeast Asia at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan's Kyoto University.

"However, things are far from static," Creak said. "A new generation of party technocrats has stepped up to replace veterans of the revolution. New business connections have allowed nonmilitary figures to quickly build patronage networks."

Creak said many voters were casting their ballots with care.

"Despite the absence of competing parties, many Lao voters take their vote quite seriously — even if it is candidates' education, experience and even appearance, rather than their policies, that make up minds," he said.


Associated Press writer Sinfah Tunsarawuth contributed to this report.