Laos picks new Communist Party leaders as top bosses exit

Laos President Choummaly Sayasone (right) and Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong (second from right) cast their ballots on Jan 21, 2016.
Laos President Choummaly Sayasone (right) and Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong (second from right) cast their ballots on Jan 21, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

HANOI (REUTERS) -  Laos’s Communist Party chose veteran Bounnhang Vorachit to be its new leader on Friday (Jan 22) and elected a new 11-member politburo at the end of a five-yearly congress that saw the exits of several high-profile politicians.

Bounnhang, the current vice president, won the leadership vote and five new faces joined the elite politburo as outgoing party chief and president, Choummaly Sayasone, Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and two deputy premiers made way.

The selection of Bounnhang, 78, was anticipated by experts, who see a continuation of a status quo in which power is tightly controlled by the party while pursuing strong economic expansion, which has averaged 7.8 per cent since 2011.

Bounnhang is now one of the last remaining members of the revolutionary generation in the higher echelons of a party that has run Laos for four decades. He topped the list of a new 77-member central committee announced on Friday.

Second on the list and re-elected to the politburo was National Assembly chairwoman and former central bank governor Pany Yathotu, suggesting her rise in the party hierarchy to be a possible prime minister, according to Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos expert and retired professor of the University of Queensland.

The prime minister and cabinet posts are expected to be announced later in the year.

“The most significant promotion has been Madame Pany,”Stuart-Fox said, adding she was now “a very powerful figure”.  He said major policy changes from the new leadership were unlikely. 

Laos has close political ties to communist Vietnam and mirrors its political system. Both 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 into a fledgling US$12 billion (S$17.15 billion) economy 862 times smaller than its own.

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

State media did not state why Thongsing and Choummaly, who have been politburo members since 1991, did not contest re-election to the central committee.

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.