LAOS: Politics in a Single-Party State
Stuart-Fox, Martin, Southeast Asian Affairs
In the nominally Marxist-Leninist Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR), whose political institutions are modelled on those of the former Soviet Union, the most important events of the political calendar are the congresses of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP). These congresses take place only every five years, and 2006 was such a year.
Party congresses provide opportunities both for the nomination of a new political leadership, and for setting out new policy directions. Thus it was the Fourth Party Congress in 1986 that endorsed the so-called "new economic mechanism " which introduced a market economy and opened the way for private foreign investment. The Fourth Congress was delayed for nine months while the ideological struggle over policy was waged, with great secrecy, within the Party. That subsequent congresses have been held on schedule (some time in March) suggests a degree of ideological consensus. The 2006 Eighth Party Congress was held on schedule.
What party congresses do determine is the leadership of the country for the next five years, so they are preceded by a period of intense political activity. And because of the excessive secrecy that surrounds all intra-party politics in Laos, the lead-up to a party congress is a time of swirling rumour. For a good two years prior to the 2006 congress rumours abounded about the likely composition of the new Political Bureau, and who would get what position in the new government that is formed after each congress.
In the lead-up to the Eighth Party Congress there was little serious debate over policy. Some observers claimed to discern differences between "reformers" and "conservatives" or between "pro-Vietnamese" and "pro-Chinese" groupings within the Party, but there was widespread agreement over key policy issues. These were, broadly, that the country should continue to pursue an open market economy and to attract foreign direct investment to develop industry and resources; that it should continue to accept foreign aid from all willing donors; and that it should carefully balance its relations not just between Vietnam and China, but also with Thailand and other ASEAN states, and with Japan and the West.
So what was all the politicking about? Mainly it was about the protection of political interests by powerful figures within the party. These interests have to do with how political power is concentrated and applied, which in Lao political culture is through patronage networks that take in not just extended families (through birth and marriage), but also close friends, business partners, and regional representatives. Being part of a network focused on a powerful political figure (in Laos, usually a member of the Politburo) provides access to all sorts of benefits, from positions in government or the bureaucracy to business contracts and influence in cases of law to scholarships for children, and so on. As all this takes place as a result of power exercised by and through the party, there is all but complete agreement within the party on the necessity to maintain its monopoly of political power, and to protect the means at its disposal to disburse patronage. So what needed no discussion in the lead-up to the Eighth Party Congress was whether to institute more democratic processes, or to make politics more transparent. Such reforms were not on the party's agenda.
The Outcome of the Eighth Party Congress
With little warning (probably for security reasons), the four-day congress opened on 18 March. The results were not as rumour predicted. Only 82-year-old state and party President General Khamtay Siphandone, stepped down, instead of the expected three or four ageing generals. With the earlier death of Major-General Osakan Thammatheva, this left just two vacant places in the 11-member Politburo. These were filled by the long-serving former Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengasavad, and Madame Pany Yathothu, the first woman and the first ethnic Hmong to be elevated to the Politburo. …