People of communist Laos goes to the polls


Voting in Laos
A woman holds her son as she drops her ballot in the box at a polling station in the Laotian capital of Vientiane

Only one of the 166 candidates standing for election to the 109-seat national assembly was not a member of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party.

Hammer and sickle banners and photographs of top communist officials adorned polling stations in case voters needed any reminder of which party to vote for.

Polling day security was tight around the capital as the communist authorities sought to prevent any repetition of a mystery bombing campaign which marred
the run-up to the ruling party's five-yearly congress last year.

Armed police in uniform manned the polling stations while militiamen in camouflage dress patrolled the streets outside.

But Laotian President Khamtay Siphandone insisted voters did not want a wider choice of party as he cast his ballot at a polling station in the capital shortly after polls opened.

police monitor polls
A policeman looks at voters waiting to cast their ballots at a polling station in Vientiane

The sole non-party candidate in the election, Justice Minister Khamouane Boupha, said voters were not interested in a return to the divisiveness of multi-partyism.

"There is no difference whether you are a member of the party or not," said Mr Boupha, who is one of the great survivors of Lao politics having served in the coalition governments that preceded the communists' 1975 takeover.

Early turnout at the three polling stations in the capital to which journalists were taken on a foreign ministry tour appeared quite heavy despite the lack of choice of party, although it thinned out dramatically in the heat of the day.

Voters interviewed by journalists insisted they were quite happy with the one-party system because it was what distinguished Laos from its capitalist and culturally dominant neighbour Thailand, just across the Mekong River.

"If you have many parties, we would end up being just like Thailand with all that vote-buying and corruption," said 70-year-old party stalwart Thongklai Vongsasombat, proudly displaying a bust of late communist leader Kaysone Phomvihan on his lapel.

But young voters too agreed with the party veteran.

"If we have too many parties, we'll end up being just like other countries and no longer be Laos," said 22-year-old English student Thatsa Nyvanh.

Since the collapse of its former eastern bloc sponsors, the Lao communist party has sought to reinvent itself as a bastion of Lao culture against outside influences, particularly Thai and Western ones.