Laos' Communist Party picks new chief

The Vice-President of Laos, Mr Bounnhang Vorachit, casting his ballot during the Communist Party congress in Vientiane. The 78-year-old was chosen yesterday to be the new leader of the highly secretive party.
The Vice-President of Laos, Mr Bounnhang Vorachit, casting his ballot during the Communist Party congress in Vientiane. The 78-year-old was chosen yesterday to be the new leader of the highly secretive party.PHOTO: REUTERS

Vice-President's selection no surprise to experts, who see party keeping grip on power

HANOI • The Communist Party in Laos yesterday chose Vice-President Bounnhang Vorachit to be its new leader after a vote by a new central committee that did not include the Premier and former party chief, signalling their political exits.

The official KPL news agency said Mr Bounnhang, 78, won the leadership vote at the five-yearly congress of the secretive party. It did not name the new elite politburo.

Mr Bounnhang's selection was anticipated by experts, who see a continuation of a status quo in which power is tightly controlled by the party while it pursues economic expansion, which has averaged 7.8 per cent since 2011.

The outgoing party chief and President, Mr Choummaly Sayasone, 79, who has held both posts since 2006, and Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, 71, were among four serving politburo members who did not apply to join the top committee, state media said.

Mr Bounnhang was at the top of a list of a newly elected 77-member central committee which saw all 39 members who applied for re-election chosen.

Second on the list was National Assembly chairman and former central bank governor Pany Yathotu, a development that suggests a move up in the party hierarchy for her to be a possible prime minister, according to Mr Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos expert and retired professor of the University of Queensland.

The prime minister and Cabinet posts were not scheduled to be announced at the congress.

"The most significant promotion has been Madame Pany," Mr Stuart-Fox said, adding she is now "a very powerful figure".

State media did not say why Mr Thongsing and Mr Choummaly, who have been politburo members since 1991, did not seek re-election.

Laos has close political ties to its communist neighbour Vietnam and mirrors its political system. Both South-east Asian countries are holding their five-yearly congresses this week.

Communist neighbour China has been vying aggressively for influence on Laos, however, providing scholarships, aid, loans and infrastructure investment to a fledgling US$12 billion (S$17 billion) economy.

Growth in Laos has been driven by investment, mining and sales abroad of most of its growing hydropower output, largely to Thailand. This has boosted incomes and access to electricity, telecommunications and healthcare for its mostly rural population of 6.8 million.

Foreign media has not been permitted to cover the congress. A senior foreign ministry press official said there was insufficient time to invite international media.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2016, with the headline 'Laos' Communist Party picks new chief'. Print Edition | Subscribe