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Elections in communist Laos promise little change

Associated Press - April 30, 2011

Grant Peck, Bangkok Laos, one of the world's last communist nations, is holding parliamentary elections Saturday. But the vote will only preserve the status quo, because virtually all candidates owe allegiance to the all-powerful political party that's ruled for 36 years.

The Southeast Asian country's real policymakers were selected in March, when the ruling 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 its secretary general.

During Saturday's election, voters will choose among 190 candidates contesting 132 parliamentary seats, according to Laos' state news agency, which said results were not expected for at least a week.

Most candidates are members of the communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party, which has governed by itself since 1975 and is the only party taking part. As a result, the choice for voters is among personalities, not ideologies, and the exercise is mainly expected to help a new, younger generation into a government long dominated by aging revolutionaries who defeated a US-backed regime three decades ago.

While the National 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 members also swelled parliament's ranks in the last legislative vote in 2006, lending more substance to debates.

The legislature, for example, has 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 the Lao capital, Vientiane, to observe the vote.

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.

But they have also 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 the economy of one of the world's poorest nations. Strong economic growth has helped the ruling 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 told The Associated Press. "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."

And despite the lack of change, many voters are choosing 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," Creak said.

[Associated Press writer Sinfah Tunsarawuth in Bangkok contributed to this report.]

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