PREVIEW: Laos election takes a feminist tack

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By Peter Janssen Apr 28, 2011, 10:45 GMT

Vientiane – There is a certain predictability to elections in a one-party state, such as communist Laos.

Some 3.23 million voters in Lao’s People’s Democratic Repulic are to go to the polls Saturday to elect 132 new members of the National Assembly, the country’s legislative body.

There are 190 candidates, 45 of them women, and all from the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the communist party that has ruled this country since 1975.

The government has made it clear that it wants a larger share of women in the next National Assembly.

‘The government has said it wants 30 per cent of the National Assembly to be women, so you can be pretty sure that 30 per cent of the elected candidates will be women,’ said one western diplomat.

The assembly, previously little more than a rubber stamp for the communist party dictates, has gained clout in the last five years as a supervisory body of the executive, observers said.

It played a role in the forced resignation of former prime minister Bouasone Bouphavanh in December for ‘family problems.’

Bouasone reportedly had a ‘mia noi,’ or mistress, a common enough practice in Laos but a no-no for politburo members and cabinet ministers.

‘The Lao Women’s Union was very upset about it, and they are powerful within the party and the National Assembly,’ said an official, who asked to remain anonymous.

One can also expect a near 100 per cent turnout on Saturday, despite a noticeable lack of enthusiasm among voters.

‘Lao people don’t get too excited about elections because we only have one party,’ said Air Viravong, a hotel employee. ‘I don’t know any of the candidates but I will vote because it is required.’

The National Assembly pays for transport and posters of all candidates, and prohibits them from criticizing one another during the campaign.

An effort has been made by the party to select candidates who do not hold other government jobs, so they will prioritize their legislative and supervisory duties. This year’s candidates also include more young people and representatives from local authorities.

‘The National Assembly is developing a corporate identity, and some sense of their own importance,’ said one western diplomat.

Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong was a former president of the assembly. One of his initiatives was to open a hotline for people’s complaints.

The hotline proved popular, adding spice to Laos’ usually staid media reports, and provided grist to the mill of many complaints raised in the assembly against government policies, especially dealing with land acquisitions by the state for public or private projects.

The assembly provides one of the few venues to air dissent against the government in Laos, where the last reported protest was in 1999, when three student activists unfurled an anti-government banner in public.

They were arrested and slapped with 15-year jail terms.

Observers attribute the recent lack of dissent to economic growth as well as the harsh justice system. Laos’ economy grew 8 per cent last year, offering plenty of job opportunities at least to those living in Vientiane.

The government has also taken a lax stance on internet use, although only 4 per cent of the 6 million population have access, and interferes less with people’s private lives than it has previously.

‘It is a liberal society if you are not a government opponent,’ said one diplomat. ‘But with the social problems emerging now, drug use, landlessness and a growing gap between the rich and the poor, in the long run things might change.’


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