On Sunday, a general election will take place in Laos, a small, secretive, land-locked country in Southeast Asia. You’re unlikely to have heard much about it, however. That’s because elections in Laos are essentially a non-event, and little more than a pretense to provide legitimacy to the ruling Laos People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), which has governed since the 1970s.
The vote on February 21 will be held to elect members of Laos’ National Assembly’s ninth legislature, as well as its second Provincial/Capital People’s Councils. It will be the country’s first nationwide vote since March 2016.
This year, according to an announcement in the state-run Vientiane Times, 224 candidates will compete for 164 seats in the National Assembly, with 789 running for the 492 seats in the People’s Councils.
Although voter turnout is typically high in Laos’ elections, the electorate is essentially granted no choice beyond the LPRP, in a political environment that tolerates no space for government criticism, and where human rights violations are routine.
Will the Election Be Free or Fair?
Not even close. Like prior elections in Laos, the upcoming vote fails to meet the standards of a competitive, free, fair, inclusive, and participatory electoral process.
Laos is a one-party state in which the ruling LPRP is the “leading nucleus” of the country’s political system, according to the constitution. As a result, the LPRP dominates all aspects of political life, while severely restricting criticism of any kind.
There is no space for opposition. In the current National Assembly, 144 of the 149 seats are held by LPRP members, with the remaining five taken by “independents.” Although these are not official party members, they are carefully vetted and need to be approved to run in the election by the Laos Front for National Development (previously the Laos Front for National Construction), an opaque government-affiliated political organization. As a result, no alternative voices are ever heard in the Lao parliament.
Nor is there space for dissent in the wider society. Government surveillance is prominent, and security groups and party-linked organizations routinely look for government criticism, including online. For example, in 2019, Lao citizen Houayheuang “Muay” Xayabouly was sentenced to five years in prison for a Facebook post that drew attention to the plight of victims of a deadly dam collapse in the country’s south in 2018, and criticized the government’s response.
A free press is also non-existent. Although freedom of the press is guaranteed in the constitution, in practice the government exercises control over all the media. A 2014 decree criminalizes the spreading of “false information” online aimed at discrediting the government, and requires users to supply their real name and address when setting up social media accounts.
What Do We Expect to Happen in the Election?
A slight change in personnel, but in reality more of the same. According to the Constitution, Laos’ President is elected by the National Assembly with two-thirds of the votes from all members who attend the session. At the Congress of the LPRP’s Central Committee in January, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith was elected as its general secretary. Last month’s conference also elected a new Central Committee and Secretariat, as well as members for the powerful 13-member Politburo.
Based on previous elections, following the February poll, all indications point to a new cabinet being approved with Thongloun as president, who will then appoint a new prime minister.
Does Laos’s National Assembly Provide Adequate Checks and Balances?
No. The assembly does have space for representatives to raise the concerns of their constituents, but these are typically related to land issues, and sometimes low-level corruption, but nothing that can be considered criticism of the party. The LPRP’s patronage system creates an understanding among members that is not in the best interests of their career trajectory to speak out.
Although legislation is passed in the Assembly, major government policies are instead formed through the party’s Politburo and Central Committee.
What About the Human Rights Situation in Laos?
Laos’ opaque political structure helps to facilitate what is one of the world’s most oppressive government regimes, part of the dire human rights situation in Southeast Asia. On top of the intolerance for dissent in Laos, enforced disappearances are known to occur.
The most high profile case is that of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared from the streets of the Lao capital, Vientiane, in December 2012 after being stopped at a police checkpoint. Authorities have claimed they are investigating his disappearance, but more than eight years later have not revealed his whereabouts.
In August 2019, Od Sayavong, a Lao refugee living in Bangkok who had drawn attention to human rights abuses and corruption in Laos, disappeared and has not been heard from since. Concerns about a sinister agreement between the Thai and Lao governments for the “swapping” of dissidents have been raised since the bodies of two exiled critics of Thailand’s military and royal family were found in the Mekong River in Laos in January 2019.
Government critics also face arrest. As well as the case of Muay, who was jailed for her Facebook posts, seven activists were detained in November 2019, accused of planning to participate in a rally in Vientiane, among others.
Although there is widespread attention on the deteriorating situation of human rights and democracy elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the atrocious situation in Laos often gets a free pass, in large part due to the regime’s secretive operations. The international community must not let the Laos government’s veil of secrecy shield it from scrutiny, and the human rights violations taking place there deserve as much attention as anywhere else.
Mu Sochua is a Board Member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and former Cambodian Member of Parliament (MP)