May 10, 2011 / 9:14 AM / 8 years ago

Communist Laos elects one-party parliament, so hopes for change slim

* Parliament seen as rubber-stamp for politburo

* Scope for freer debate but authoritarian status quo remains

* 99.6 percent turnout; “independents” win 4 seats

By Martin Petty

BANGKOK, May 10 (Reuters) - Communist Laos has announced results of its parliamentary election, with a younger, “highly educated” generation of lawmakers set to continue the authoritarian status quo in one of Asia’s most tightly controlled countries.

More than 3.2 million people, roughly half the population, cast votes in the five-yearly poll to elect 132 lawmakers, all but four of whom were representatives of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the only legal party in the mountainous, landlocked country. [ID:nL3E7FS4YH]

The first task for the new assembly when it convenes in June will be to approve a new president, vice-president, prime minister and cabinet selected by the 11-member politburo of the party’s Central Committee, the country’s real policy makers.

The voter turnout was 99.6 percent and a “joyful atmosphere” prevailed during the April 30 ballot, election authorities said on Tuesday. The results were delayed by heavy rain.

“The newly elected National Assembly members are highly educated,” Election Secretariat Committee member Taworn Vanwijit was quoted as saying by Lao National Radio.

“I believe the National Assembly’s role will be enhanced during the coming five-year term.”

But that role is likely to be limited, presenting only a thin veneer of democracy in a country that has tolerated almost no opposition since its “national liberation” in 1975, when communist revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy.

Almost 32 percent of the new assembly members are central government officials and 25 percent were women.

Analysts and local observers, who declined to be named, said four seats were won by non-party candidates, all of them representatives of private companies. State media have not referred to any of the candidates as independents, or as members of the ruling party.

SCRIPTED DEBATE

“The National Assembly is just a rubber stamp and will continue to be one for as long as Laos is a single-party authoritarian state,” said Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos expert at the University of Queensland.

“Everything it decides on has already been determined by the party hierarchy ... What is debated is again determined by the party.”

President Choummaly Sayasone, 75, a retired three-star army general, is almost certain to remain in office, having been re-elected secretary-general of the ruling party at its congress in March. He was unanimously elected president by the assembly in 2006.

Choummaly has outlined a vision to haul Laos out of poverty by 2020 with robust economic growth of 8 percent a year, fuelled by foreign investment. Laos’s $6 billion economy has expanded an average 7.9 percent annually over the past five years and emerged unscathed from the global economic crisis.

Laos wants to become the “battery of Southeast Asia”, selling hydropower to its energy-hungry neighbours. The country is also rich in minerals, attracting mining companies, while the launch in January this year of a stock market may eventually help to attract more foreign capital.

The target markets are mainly neighbours China and Thailand as well as Vietnam, which has long exerted political, economic and social influence over the country.

Simon Creak, a Laos specialist at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan’s Kyoto University, said discussions in the assembly had been more robust in recent years and the government seemed keen to learn how its policies affected the public.

“The big question is what difference this will make to government policies,” Creak said.

“Will concerns expressed in the assembly feed back into policy-making processes in the party politburo and Central Committee? It’s hard to say. But even if they do, these will have to compete with a range of other priorities and interests.” (Editing by Alan Raybould)

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