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Newcomers Dominate New National Assembly in Laos

Laos says newcomers won 60 percent of the seats in the National Assembly in last month's elections. However, all but two are members of the Communist Party, ensuring that centralized policies will continue in one of the world's few remaining Marxist states.

Lao state media Wednesday announced that 71 new members were elected in national elections held 10 days ago, while 44 incumbents were re-elected. Twenty-nine of the delegates are women, up from 25 in the previous legislature.

In addition, two independent candidates were elected. The rest of the 115 seats were won by the Communist Party, which has governed since it came to power at the end of the Vietnam War era.

Officials said the new assembly would convene early next month to choose a successor to retiring Prime Minister Boungnang Vorachith.

The elections followed by one month the Communist Party congress, in which one-third of the party's Political Bureau was replaced and President Khamtai Siphandone stepped down in favor of his deputy, Choummaly Sayasone.

Lao officials say the changes will bring new blood to the government.

The author of several books on Laos, Queensland University Professor Martin Stuart-Fox, says that despite the new faces he does not see major political changes on the horizon.

"The outlook is for continued tight control by the party, resistance to any kind of political reform, resistance to any kind of transparency in the transactions of the party. It's a very secretive organization," he said.

But Stuart-Fox says the government will continue its policy adopted in the late 1980s of gradually opening up Laos to foreign investment and some private enterprise.

Joint ventures with foreign companies in mining have brought new revenues to the government, while the construction of a major hydro-electric plant in central Laos is expected to bring in additional billions of dollars when it begins operations in a few years.

Nevertheless, Stuart-Fox says the slow pace of reform means Laos's economy will continue to lag behind those of others in the region.

"This will lead to some improvement in the living conditions of the people but not a great deal, and the outlook is for the country to remain fairly impoverished for the future," he said.

As a result, he says Laos will continue to depend on foreign aid, which currently supports nearly one-half of the government budget.