April 30, 2006

Laos votes with eye on anti-poverty goals

By Chawadee Nualkhair

VIENTIANE (Reuters) - Communist Laos held elections for its
National Assembly on Sunday that officials hope will usher in a
nationwide push to lift one of Asia's poorest nations out of

Paramount among the goals facing the new assembly will be a
drive to shed Laos's status as a Least Developed Country (LDC)
where two-thirds of its roughly 5.8 million people still live
on less than US$2 a day.

The secretive, landlocked nation nestled between Thailand
and Vietnam is also presenting a more diverse field of
candidates to give greater voice to women and to minority

In the 1990s, the economy grew at an annual average rate of
6.3 percent and is forecast by the World Bank to grow 7.1
percent this year, thanks to foreign money funding mining and
hydropower projects and mineral exports.

But a host of challenges face a country that still lags far
behind neighboring Thailand, Southeast Asia's second-largest
economy, and Vietnam, currently among the fastest growing
economies in the world.

Foreign investors say Laos's legal structure is relatively
untested, its infrastructure underdeveloped, and its banking
system in need of reform -- factors that must be addressed if
more foreign money is to pour in and people's lives improve.

"There is a realization that they are lagging behind and
that it is a very risky position for the governing party," said
a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified.


A one-party state since the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet
Lao replaced the monarchy with a communist government in 1975,
the outcome of Sunday's election is not in doubt.

Nevertheless, the government has tried to make the National
Assembly more diverse this time around.

Out of 175 candidates, 115 will be elected to represent 17
constituencies, with 40 of those candidates women.

Officials hope women will make up at least 30 percent of
those entering the assembly, up from a previous 23 percent.

"We have been very conscious of this imbalance in gender.
That is why now in all fields of society we are trying to
rectify that," said Yong Chanhthalansy, director-general of the
Press Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It is one measure that has found favor with voters.

"I'm excited to vote this time because I will be voting for
women candidates," said a drug store vendor who asked not to be
identified. "Before, it was men all the time."

Laos can trumpet some successes, such as a recent
announcement the country was opium-free and a robust field of
election hopefuls boasting 32 undergraduate degrees, 22
master's degrees and 32 doctorates.