An anonymous colleague has sent in the following insights in response to a journalist’s questions on tomorrow’s National Assembly questions in Laos.
Is Saturday’s National Assembly election in Laos anything other than an old-fashioned, Communist-style election, with the results more or less pre-ordained and of no particular significance?
I think in each constituency one third of the candidates are guaranteed seats, but the others have to prove themselves. Hence they spend a month traveling their province and explaining their experience and virtues. This process is not competitive in the Western sense as all the candidates say good things about themselves and their aspirations. As a result any negative background on the candidates is sourced through private gossip. Most of the pre-ordained candidates hold positions in the NA already or have some link to personnel and organization units in the Party which dictate who gets promoted and who gets overlooked. It is interesting to note that the previous independent NA members have not run for parliament again.
It is pointless talking about opposition parties. Are there factions or interest groups? Yes! Can we easily identify them? No. Often the names and titles of candidates do not give away much about their connections and their agendas. Another thing to note is that various ministries, especially defence and public security, have already been casting their votes in advance of Saturday’s election. So one could argue that they have fixed their numbers. In addition, it also suggests the need for monitoring on election day which brings into question the freedom of voting. In many of the biographies the profiles fail to explain the details of the candidates’ education. Where exactly did they study? What was their major? In addition, many candidates have large gaps in their biographical chronologies which makes one ask where were they and what were they doing at certain times in their life?
Are there any interesting aspects to the polls?
The mass organization candidates are important, especially those from the revolutionary youth organization [this year there are intentionally more candidates from the party’s mass organisations and fewer holding government, which was intended to ensure the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.] These people are grooming the next generation of Lao leaders. The influence of the Front is an interesting question. The Lao version of the RSL [Returned Servicemen’s League] seems to be losing its clout as old guard veterans from the 30-year struggle quickly drop like flies. The separation of powers may have gone too far for some. If few high-ranking ministers sit in the NA, will it be treated seriously? As for debate, in recent years sittings of the assembly have resulted in more heated discussions but has this in turn caused positive change?
Is the political situation any different than it was five years ago, when the last election was held? Is Laos in any sense more democratic than then?
Yes, it has changed but it has not become democratic in a Western sense. A new generation of technocratically-minded officials has stepped up to replace the armed struggle veterans. Connections with big entrepreneurs in Korea, Thailand, China and Vietnam allow non-military figures to quickly build patronage networks. It will be interesting to see how many military candidates are selected in the NA as their numbers declined in the Party’s Central Committee recently. There has been more transparency in the press compared to previous years, but certainly a lot more could be done.
Would you expect any changes in the next five years in time for the next election?
Well population growth will be the main difference leading to the expansion of seats in the parliament. As for the integrity and influence of the NA, it’s hard to tell at this time. Tradition says look to the east and follow what’s happening in Vietnam. However, nowadays many trends are tempered by what goes on in Beijing. The increase of market forces in Laos especially in the investment and banking sectors will create more pressures. How they evolve is not clear at this time. Land issues and legal reform are key issues on people’s minds.