Laos vote for communist assembly

Laotians cast ballots to elect a communist-controlled legislature.

Hanoi: Laotians cast ballots Saturday to elect a communist-controlled legislature that has shown signs of growing clout in recent years.

Polling opened in the early morning, a source familiar with the electoral process told a news agency by telephone from Laos.

There are 190 candidates vying for 132 seats in the National Assembly, up from 115 seats last time, government-controlled media in the one-party state reported.

About half the country`s roughly six million people are eligible to vote in the polls, with results expected in about one week.

"I will select the candidates who I believe will be true representatives of the Lao people and take their issues to the National Assembly," said Khounkham, 18, a first-time voter quoted in state-controlled Vientiane Times on Friday.

The assembly has evolved from being "a pure rubber stamp" into an organ with its own identity that has criticised the government and even substantially revised some laws, a foreign diplomat in Vientiane said.

But real power remains with the ruling Politburo and Central Committee already chosen in March at a five-yearly Congress by fewer than 600 party members, analysts say.

In the last legislature all but two delegates belonged to the Lao People`s Revolutionary Party but even those "independents" eventually joined the party, the diplomat said.

Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos specialist at The University of Queensland in Australia, agreed the assembly has sometimes been more critical of the government, "but the problem is how far does it go?"

The assembly has discussed the country`s corruption problem but nobody of any significance has ever been prosecuted, he said.

"I`m sure that nothing is discussed that the party doesn`t want discussed," Stuart-Fox said.

In June the newly elected assembly will formally adopt the composition of a new government, decided behind closed doors during the party congress.

Choummaly Sayasone, re-elected to the country`s top post of party leader during the congress, is also expected to be named president, the diplomat said.

Thongsing Thammavong is expected to stay on as prime minister. The former president of the assembly took on the role in December after the surprise resignation of his predecessor.

Both Vietnam and China vie for influence in landlocked Laos, which is rapidly developing but remains one of Asia`s poorest nations.

Bureau Report