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Laos to Hold Legislative Elections

A motorcyclist rides past a poster of late communist leader Kaysone Phomvihane, Vientiane, Laos, March 15, 2011.

A motorcyclist rides past a poster of late communist leader Kaysone Phomvihane, Vientiane, Laos, March 15, 2011.

Laos goes to the polls Saturday to elect representatives to its legislative branch, known as the National Assembly. The small, Southeast Asian nation is a one-party communist state and the candidates are determined by the party.

On paper it is a body of lawmakers chosen by and for the people. But analysts say in reality, the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, a communist party, selects the candidates, who serve at its convenience.

Professor Martin Stuart-Fox is a specialist on Laos at the University of Queensland in Australia. He says the communist party controls all elections in Laos.

"Overwhelmingly, the people who stand for the National Assembly elections are members of the party," he says. "A few independents are allowed to stand, but they have been checked out by the party."

Stuart-Fox says the role of the National Assembly is to lend the party a pretense of democratic legitimacy. He says its duties are supposed to include passing laws and choosing government leaders.

"But the names and who will serve have already been determined by the party. So, all the assembly does is simply to rubber stamp the decisions that the party has already made."

Nonetheless, Stuart-Fox says the party has allowed a slight improvement in the body’s internal discussions. He says while in the past there was no real debate on issues, the National Assembly now, on occasion, addresses problems such as corruption, a growing concern.

"And, this has been debated within the assembly without naming names, and, of course, nothing comes out of it in terms of prosecutions," he says. "But, it does signal the government's disquiet over the level of corruption."

Compared to its neighbors in Southeast Asia, Laos is small, poor, and landlocked, except for the Mekong River, which flows past its capital, Vientiane.

But the economy is growing rapidly, mainly from selling natural mineral and hydropower resources.

The influx of cash, and centralized power, has created opportunities for graft.

But, ordinary people in Laos are also seeing benefits from increased investment and business, leading few to question the communist party’s legitimacy.

Stuart-Fox says as long as the economy continues to grow the party will take credit for it.

"The problem has been that there has been increasing mal-distribution of wealth. So that most of the wealth that is generated by the improved economy ends up in the Mekong cities and so on. So there is still considerable poverty in the countryside," he says.

Laos is a former French colony of about seven million people and has been ruled by the communist party since 1975.