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Laos - Politics


Souphanouvong02 Dec 1975 31 Oct 1986
Phoumi Vongvichit31 Oct 1986 15 Aug 1991
Kaysone Phomvihane15 Aug 1991 21 Nov 1992
Nouhak Phoumsavanh25 Nov 1992 24 Feb 1998
Khamtai Siphandon24 Feb 199808 Jun 2006
Choummaly Sayasone08 Jun 200615 Jun 2016
Bounnhang Vorachith15 Jun 201622 Mar 2021
Thongloun Sisoulith22 Mar 2021xx xxx 2026
The Lao People's Democratic Republic is one of the world's few remaining socialist states. Since 1975, the only legal political party is the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is ruled by its only constitutionally legitimate party, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The National Assembly elections are not free and fair. The LPRP selected all candidates, and voting is mandatory for all citizens. The law denies citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage, and it did not provide for the free expression of the will of the people. Although the constitution outlines a system comprising executive, legislative, and judicial branches, the LPRP controlled governance and leadership at all levels through its constitutionally designated leading role.

In December 1975, with the declaration of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR, or Laos), the king abdicated. Although Laos was reorganized as a communist "people's democracy," important vestiges of traditional political and social behavior remained. The aristocratic families were shorn of their influence, but a new elite with privileged access to the communist roots of power emerged, and clients of lower status have searched them out as patrons. In addition, some of the old families, who had links to the new revolutionary elite, managed to survive and wield significant influence. As newly dominant elites replaced the old, they demanded a similar deference.

Lao Loum, or lowland Lao, families continue to wield the greatest influence. Despite the rhetoric of the revolutionary elite concerning ethnic equality, Lao Theung, or midland Lao, and Lao Sung, or upland Lao, minorities are low on the scale of national influence, just as they were in pre1975 society. However, the power of the central government over the outlying regions has remained tenuous, still relying upon bargains with tribal chieftains to secure the loyalty of their peoples.

Although manifesting many of the characteristics of a traditional Lao monarchy dominated by a lowland Lao Buddhist elite, the country has exhibited many of the characteristics of other communist regimes. It has shown a similar heavy bureaucratic style, with emphasis within the bureaucracy on political training and long sessions of criticism and self-criticism for its civil servants. Laos imported from its Vietnamese mentor the concept of reeducation centers or "seminar camps," where, during the early years in power, thousands of former Royal Lao Government (RLG) adversaries were incarcerated.

However, this communist overlay on traditional society has been moderated by two important factors: Lao Buddhism and government administrative incompetence in implementing socialist doctrine. Thus, what emerged in Laos has been a system aptly labeled by Prince Souvanna Phouma, former prime minister of the RLG, as "socialisme à la laotienne" (Lao-style socialism).

The mélange of traditional politics, accompanied by patronclient relations, with communist-style intra-institutional competition, has produced a unique political culture. Power centers tend to cluster around key personalities, and those in power become targets of opportunity for members of their extended family and friends.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is an authoritarian state ruled by the only party that the constitution legitimizes, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). The Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) is the only legal political party in Laos. A party conference was held in late November 1993 to include representatives of provincial party units, Central Committee members, secretaries of party committees in ministries, departments, factories, and schools. At the conference, speeches on neglect of party activities and quality of membership hinted at concerns regarding corruption and need to build the party at the grass-roots level. In 1995, the sixth ordinary session of the National Assembly closed and the tenth plenary session of the LPRP's Fifth Central Committee was held. The National Assembly endorsed a ministerial reshuffle involving lateral personnel changes.

The law provides for freedom of speech and press, but in practice the government severely restricted political speech and writing and prohibited most public criticism that it deemed harmful to its reputation. The law provides citizens with the right to criticize the government but also forbids slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state. The state owned and controlled most domestic print and electronic media. Local news in all media reflected government policy. Although domestic television and radio broadcasts were closely controlled, the government did not interfere with broadcasts from abroad.

The law provides for freedom of assembly; however, the government restricted this right in practice. The law prohibits participation in demonstrations, protest marches, or other acts that cause “turmoil or social instability.” Participation in such acts is punishable by prison terms of one to five years. The law provides citizens the right to organize and join associations, but the government restricted this right in practice. For example, political groups other than popular-front organizations approved by the LPRP are forbidden. A decree allows for the registration of nonprofit civil society organizations--including economic, social-welfare, professional, technical, and creative associations--at the district, provincial, or national level, depending on the scope of work and membership. Only 10 organizations completed the application process and were registered formally; another 70 awaited approval by the end of 2011.

There were 33 women in the 132-seat National Assembly elected in 2011, including two on the ten-member Standing Committee, and three women were members of the 13-member People’s Supreme Court. The 61-seat LPRP Central Committee included five women, one of whom was also a member of the 11-member Politburo and president of the National Assembly. Of six ministers in the Prime Minister’s Office, two were women. The minister of labor and social welfare also was a woman.

While 80 percent of the population lived in rural areas and the village chief and village council handled most everyday matters, fewer than 1 percent of the village chiefs were women. The LWU--the LPRP mass organization focused on women’s issues with a presence in every village and at every government level--is the only organization that has representation in every village, and only one member of the LWU represented women in each village council.

There were seven members of ethnic minorities in the LPRP Central Committee, including two in the Politburo. The National Assembly included 50 members of ethnic minorities, while two of the 28 cabinet ministers were members of ethnic minority groups. The new president of the National Assembly was also a member of an ethnic minority. One of the People’s Supreme Court justices was a member of an ethnic minority.

In September 2014 the government of Laos passed a decree prohibiting Internet users from criticizing the government, its policies or the ruling party. Spreading “false” information that “distorts the truth to tarnish the dignity and undermine the rights of individuals, sectors, institutions and organisations” is illegal under the new law, signed on September 16, Laos’ state news agency KPL said. Other information, which cannot be posted online, includes sensitive data, “national secrets”, pornography, inappropriate photos, as well as anything that “[undermines] peace, independence, sovereignty, unity and prosperity of the country.”

Internet service providers may face charges for supporting individuals or organizations allegedly smearing the government. Additionally, the law requires Internet users to use real names on social networks. Breaking the law will result in a warning or fine. Serious offenders will face civil and criminal charges. Similar laws have already been enacted in neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. One in seven Lao nationals has a Facebook account, Xinhua reported, adding that the number of Internet users in the country is rapidly growing. World Bank estimated that 12.5 percent of the population had access to Internet.

The first two stages of intra-party elections take place over a period of two years. In 2014, the first phase of elections took place throughout the year in meetings of all 146 district party committees across the country. The district party meetings approvedd the political reports of the district party committees and adopted their respective socio-economic plans for the next five years (2016-2021). More importantly, the district party committees chose delegates to attend the upper level meetings. According to party statutes, members of district party cells were permitted to choose candidates freely according to the principles of democratic centralism. In practice, members were made aware of which candidates, known as “targets for building” (pao-mai sang), had been anointed heirs to the local leadership. In this way, local party patrons ensured that their preferred clients were promoted at the district level.

The second phase of elections took place in 54 meetings of party committees representing the provinces, Vientiane Capital, ministries and ministry-level organs of the state and party. These meetings took place throughout 2015. Regulated by party statutes, the most important duty of these meetings was to renew party committees through internal ballots, and to nominate delegates to attend the Tenth Party Congress in 2016.

The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) vets all National Assembly candidates and dominates the political landscape. In 2016, the LPRP won 144 out of 149 seats, with the other three seats going to LPRP-approved independent candidates.

Only 23 of 148 members of the previous parliament ran for reelection 21 February 2021 — a reduction that sources described as unprecedented. With the addition of candidates running for the first time, 224 were candidates for election, with 164 seats up for grabs. “It’s hard to say why there are so many changes. I have not heard of any significant political changes happening in the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party,” Ian Baird, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, told RFA. The country of 7.2 million people that has known only LRPR rule since 1975. “It is notable that many children of former leaders in the Party appear to be on the rise, with last names such as Phomvihane, Siphandone, Sipraseuth, and others, although it is hard to know the implications,” he said.

Somphou Duangsavanh — spokesman for the National Election Committee of the National Assembly - said that Bouakham and Saithong had been disqualified for reelection only because they had reached retirement age. “We don’t have any problem with them. We didn’t kick them out,” he said. “We have only decided to limit the number of older representatives [in the Assembly]. Otherwise, we won’t be able to fulfill our mission,” he said, adding that several members of the previous parliament not running for reelection are standing instead for election to provincial people’s councils.

Two candidates for reelection to the Lao National Assembly, the country’s parliament, were removed from the list of persons eligible to run, apparently for remarks criticizing corruption in the upper ranks of the government and ruling party. Buakham Thippavong and Saithong Keoduangdy, who had both held seats in the country’s eighth parliament, were set to run again in general elections set for Feb. 21, a high-ranking Lao official told RFA’s Lao Service on 18 February 2021. “But they won’t be allowed to contend now, because they have spoken out against the ‘big guys’ [national leaders]. They are like small cars that get hurt by crashing into big trucks”.

In a previous session of parliament, Buakham Thippavong—considered an ‘iron lady’ by many in Laos—called out top leaders for setting poor examples in the country’s official anti-corruption drive, saying “rain water leaks from the roof, not from the floor.” Speaking in a session of parliament held in 2019, Buangkham noted that many holding seats in the National Assembly also hold title to hundreds of hectares of land, adding, “Powerful officials working in cooperation with the private sector often take over people’s land, disadvantaging the poor.”

Also in 2019, Saithong Keoduangdy had urged the government to inspect the properties of the director of the powerful state-owned Electricite Du Laos power company both before and after his terms in office, to check for unusual gains in wealth. He had also pointed to irregularities in the collection of the country’s taxes. “This nation will be bankrupted someday because middle-level officials put their heads together to draw off money from tax collections, later saying there was less revenue because we’re in an economic recession. That isn’t right,” he said.

Single-party regimes forsake using elections to gather information on overall regime support and strength of opposition in favor of information on the popularity of local notables and the compliance of local officials with central mandates. Domestic news in Laos suffers from a lack of current content, extensive censorship and a heavy pro-government bias. In an annual survey of press freedom released in April 2020, Laos was ranked 172 out of 180 countries by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which said the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party “exercises total control over the media.” According to Ronald Wintrobe [The Political Economy of Dictatorship, 1998], authoritarian regimes face a Dictator’s Dilemma, ” which is how to use an election to gain information and guarantee victory at the same time. Such leaders desire information, but have no mechanism by which to objectively gather it. “Dictators,” Wintrobe writes, “cannot—either by using force or the threat of force, or by promises, even of vast sums of money or chunks of their empires—know whether the population genuinely worships them or worships them because they command such worship”.

The only discernible difference in political outlook among ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party apparatchiks is whether they belong to the pro-Hanoi or pro-Beijing faction. In the late 1960s and in 1970 some Western sources suggested the existence of a rift between leadership cliques favoring the Soviet Union and those favoring the People's Republic of China (PRC). Prince Souphanouvong and Phoumi Vongvichit (secretary general of the NLHS Central Committee) were said to be. pro-Soviet oriented, and Kaysone Phomvihan and Nouhak Phoumsavan sympathized with the PRC.

The division in the country’s highly bureaucratic government is typically seen as generational, with the older generation favoring Hanoi and younger members leaning towards Beijing, or geographic, split between the pro-China networks in the north and pro-Vietnam ones in the south. Following the 8th Party Congress, held in 2006, the pro-Beijing faction seemed to gain momentum. China became Laos’ largest foreign investor in 2013, pushing Vietnam into second place. China prefers large-scale infrastructure works and seeks to build relations with officials in the central government. But a great deal of power rests in local governments, so Vietnam often cultivates ties to provincial officials and smaller businesses owned by influential party-aligned figures.

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Page last modified: 23-03-2021 16:43:50 ZULU