Lao People's Democratic Republic - Political parties
Elections to the National Assembly were first held in 1947. In the elections of 4 May 1958, the Pathet Lao's newly organized National Political Front (Neo Lao Hak Xat) won 9 of the 21 seats in contention; 4 were won by the Santiphab faction, a neutralist group allied with them, and 8 were obtained by the Nationalist and Independent parties. After the elections, the Nationalists and Independents combined to establish a new political party, the Rally of the Lao People (Lao Luam Lao), which held 36 of the 59 Assembly seats. The remaining 23 seats were divided among the National Political Front (9), the Santiphab grouping (7), the Democrats (3), the National Union (2), and unaffiliated deputies (2). The leaders of the Rally, upon formation of that party, announced its purpose to be the defense of Laos against "an extremist ideology contrary to the customs and traditions of the Lao country" and the establishment of true unity and independence of the nation against "subversion from within and without." The Front then and later called for a reduction in the size of the armed forces and of US military aid. In December 1959, because of emergency conditions, election of new Assembly deputies was postponed until April 1960. When the balloting was finally held, the opposition Committee for the Defense of the National Interests won a landslide victory. The Committee leader, Phoumi Nosavan, then formed a new political party, the Social Democrats (Paxa Sangkhom).
In August 1960, a coup led by Kong Le brought down the government. After a period of struggle, Souvanna Phouma, who had earlier established the Neutralist Party (Lao Pen Kang) in order to build a broader popular following, became prime minister on 11 June 1962. In his 19-man cabinet, 4 posts were held by right-wing politicians, 11 by Neutralists, and 4 others by Pathet Lao adherents. The National Assembly came to the end of its five-year term in 1965. Political instability prevented the holding of national elections, and a provisional assembly was convened to amend the constitution so as to provide a means for maintaining the legislature. The result was a general election held on 18 July, with the franchise limited to civil servants, teachers, merchants, and village headmen. The new National Assembly was convened on 16 August, with the Neutralists retaining 13 seats, the Social Democrats 11, the Rally 8, and various independents 27. The endorsement gained in the limited polling of 1965 was not sufficient to sustain Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma for long, and new voting—the first real and effective election in a decade—took place on 1 January 1967. About 60% of 800,000 eligible voters went to the polls in 1967, despite the Pathet Lao charge that the balloting was illegal. Souvanna Phouma's United Front took 32 of 59 seats in the National Assembly voting.
In the last years of the constitutional monarchy, the gulf between the Pathet Lao and the enclave of rightists and neutralists that held governmental power widened appreciably. The pressures of war—both the civil strife within Laos and the larger conflict pressed by the external forces of the United States and the DRV—had thwarted the effectiveness of normal political processes. General elections held on 2 January 1972 were confined to government-controlled areas, with representatives for the Pathet Lao provinces elected by refugees from those regions. Despite the narrow range of political choices available to voters, only 20 of the 60 National Assembly deputies were reelected, reflecting a growing uneasiness both with the war and with the increasing evidence of corrupt practices among government officials. Despite right-wing pressures from within the National Assembly, Souvanna Phouma—whose neutralist policy was favored by both the United States and the DRV—retained the position of prime minister. The withdrawal of US military support for the Thieu regime in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) was followed, in April 1974, by the creation of a new coalition in Vientiane that gave equal political footing to the Pathet Lao. The National Assembly, which had become little more than a forum for disputes among right-wing factions, was dissolved by King Savang Vatthana on 13 April 1975, an act that signaled the end of domestic political opposition to the inexorable progress of the Pathet Lao.
The formation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in December 1975 effectively established the Communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) (Phak Pasason Pativat Lao), the political incarnation of the Pathet Lao movement, as the sole political force in Laos. Kaysone Phomvihan, general secretary of the LPRP, was named head of government, and Prince Souphanouvong head of state. The LPRP plays the leading role in the Lao Front for National Reconstruction, which sought to promote socialism and national solidarity. The Third Party Congress of the PPPL, and the first since the party assumed control, was held in Vientiane in April 1982. The congress, whose 228 delegates represented a party membership of 35,000, elected an enlarged Central Committee with 49 full and 6 alternate members. The Central Committee reelected Kaysone as general secretary. The Fourth Party Congress, held in Vientiane in December 1986, established the "new economic management mechanism."
In 1988 the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) adopted new elections laws and elections were held the next year—the first since 1975. In 1991, the Fifth Party Congress changed Prime Minister Phomvihan's title to president, a post he held until his death one year later. Elevated to the post of prime minister was Khamtai Suphandon, a generally pro-free market antidemocratic pragmatist of the Singaporean variety. Suphandon had for a time studied Marxism in Hanoi, but in his position as prime minister was considered essentially a transitional figure between the old guard and a new generation of leaders. After Phomvihan's death in 1992, a special session of the SPA elected an old-guard communist, Nouhak Phoumsavan, to the presidency.
Elections for the SPA were again held in 1992 but they were marred by the sentencing of three pro-democracy activists to 14 years in prison on the day before balloting. By 1996, Laos' leadership was made up primarily of party functionaries, regardless of the makeup of the SPA. Prime Minister Suphandon held considerable power as did Deputy Prime Minister Khamphoui Keoboualapha, who also served as the administrator of the State Committee for Planning and Cooperation (CPC), considered by many analysts to be a government within a government.
A 1998 election retrenched the hard-liners, as "technocrats" vanished from the pre-approved slate, replaced with old style LPRP functionaries. This was viewed as a reaction to the social tensions (such as crime and corruption) arising with economic openness, as well as an attempt to reestablish centralized control over provincial matters.
The Seventh Party Congress, which took place in March 2001, re-elected all eight surviving members of the nine-member Politburo. The decision was a clear sign that the party had opted for continuity rather than change.
Several governments-in-exile have been set up by former ministers of pre-1975 regimes, and overseas Hmongs and other dissidents have formed opposition organizations. A young pretender to the throne, Prince Soulivong Savang, has rallied support in exile. Some Hmong groups and others continue a low-level insurgency in rural Laos. Underground antigovernment sentiment may be on the rise among the urban intellectuals.
As of early 2003, parties other than the LPRP continue to be proscribed. A glimpse of popular discontent emerged with reports of an October 1999 demonstration in Vientiane, led by students and professors calling for democracy and human rights. The protest was quickly suppressed, and Khamtai's government disavowed all knowledge of its occurrence.