Clues to political change in Laos

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Author: Simon Creak, NTU

From January 13 to 15, 2021, the 11 Congress The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) – the most anticipated event of Laos’ five-year political cycle – made modest changes at the top and reaffirmed the country’s high-stakes economic strategy, including its growing reliance on it. with regard to China. However, it experienced a significant turnover of staff at lower levels and hinted at possible changes in political and economic orientation.

In the presence of 768 delegates, the main function of the congress was to elect a new party central committee of 71 members, which in turn chose the powerful secretary general, the politburo and the secretariat. Although key elements of this process are hidden from public view, it seems to mix together Leninist democratic centralism with patron-client relations, political networking and intervention by party elders, thus moderating any mood for political change. The pre-congress negotiations largely determine the outcome.

The change at the top has been measured. People’s Prime Minister and number two in the party, Thongloun Sisoulith, succeeds Bounnhang Vorachith as general secretary. State Vice President and permanent member of the secretariat, Phankham Viphavanh, edged out National Assembly Speaker Pany Yathotou and Deputy Prime Minister Bounthong Chitmany to become the new number two. Bounthong was appointed a permanent member of the secretariat, an influential position held by Bounnhang before Phankham.

Other members of the political bureau won two places, including the closely watched offspring of the party’s first two leaders. Xaysomphone Phomvihane, son of the late party founder Kaysone Phomvihane and leader of the Lao Front for National Development, rose to fifth place. Deputy Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, son of the powerful power broker Khamtay Siphandone and who would have been the pre-congress favorite for the post of prime minister, only dropped to ninth place, casting doubt on these predictions.

The president and prime minister will be appointed after the February elections to the National Assembly. If Thongloun becomes president of the state, like his predecessors since 1998, Congress leaves Phankham in a better position to become prime minister. A less likely possibility – especially if Sonexay or even Xaysomphone can claim the post of prime minister – could be that Phankham becomes state president, again dividing the party and state presidencies.

Greater turnover occurred in the 10-18 ranks. Four new faces were raised within the enlarged 13-member politburo, including two who jumped from ranks 23 and 50, and five new members of the nine-person secretariat (ranked 14-18) were snatched from ranks 39-63 of the old committee center. With three of the nine key promotions being women, four women now sit in the political bureau or secretariat – a notable increase from just one (Pany).

Rejuvenation was most important lower in the pecking order. Surprisingly, 31 of the 69 members of the previous central committee were not re-elected – a significant clean-up of senior and middle managers – allowing the election of 33 new members and 10 alternates. This turnover suggests that the party could act on the criticism of the party leadership and the government expressed in Bounnhang’s policy. report, who blamed officials for their lack of courage and creativity in dealing with the new problems.

What are the implications of the changes?

Speculatively, we could envision a potential tension between the family patronage networks of wartime revolutionaries, which previously dominated the politburo, and a new generation of better educated technocrats advocating party discipline, socialist state building. , scrutiny of government projects and equitable development.

For the first time, the LPRP is led by career executives and educators rather than soldiers and war commissioners. Protected by revolutionary theorist Phoumi Vongvichit, Thongloun trained as a teacher when he joined the revolution, obtained graduate degrees in the Soviet Union, and later became a respected foreign minister. As prime minister, he introduced efforts – although limit – to curb official largesse and corruption. Phankham and Bounthong were also educators and had careers in party propaganda, training and organization. Phankham has a reputation for common sense while Bounthong led the party’s anti-corruption program. Both have also served as provincial governors. These leaders can act more decisively to implement Strategies strengthen party and state institutions, including those related to discipline and integrity.

The language of socialist state-building was predominant in Congress, reflecting a recent model. The leaders stressed the need to improve the rule of law, especially in the economic fields. Lest the rule of law be confused with liberalization, Bounnhang stressed the role of these and other reforms in building the “democratic state of the people” and advancing towards socialism. Bounnhang too Underline the need to improve ‘social media management’, an apparent reference to repression in line critical of the government.

Economically, the congress did not report any changes to Laos’ hydropower-intensive economic strategy or its deepening. dependence on China. But by addressing the country’s debt problems and COVID-19 economic crisis, Tongloun recognized his government’s poor track record in financial management reinforced the need for development to reduce poverty and inequalities and announced a reduced annual growth target of 4% for 2021-2025. This reduction is notable; the question is whether this was solely due to the COVID-19 recession or whether it signals a change in approach.

Speculation aside, to speak of the tension between patronage and technocratic socialism would be premature. Revolutionary family patronage networks are unlikely to fade anytime soon. Sonexay may not have been able to get ahead of its rivals, but the Siphandone family has strengthened its representation on the central committee, as have other influential families. Nonetheless, indications of potential changes in political and economic direction provide crucial points of vigilance for years to come.

On the other hand, the congress is unlikely to portend a change in Laos’ international relations. While Bounnhang popular the country’s “partnership of common destiny” with China, the key political relationship of the LPRP with the Vietnamese Communist Party, forged during the wars in Indochina, remains fundamental in its founding myth.

Simon Creak is Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian History at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


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