Hundreds of candidates seeking national and local offices are stumping across Laos as they try to perk up interest in an election that most of the population seems to be greeting with a yawn.
While about 600 candidates in the one-party communist nation are seeking election on March 20, people in the landlocked and impoverished nation of about 6.9 million seem to think casting a ballot is an exercise in futility.
“No matter how many terms lawmakers have held, the situation never changes,” a resident of Savannakhet province told RFA’s Lao Service.
“People have little interest in the election because our lives do not change from election to election,” said the resident, who requested anonymity. “It’s not like other countries where there is a general election and people are interested and see its importance.”
A resident in the capital city of Vientiane expressed a similar sense of apathy.
“This election will be the same as the last one even though there are more candidates than in previous years,” the resident told RFA, once again requesting anonymity for fear of government reprisal.
“The thing is, I voted for the last election in my village, but so far I have not seen any representative coming to meet people after the election, so I wonder how they can bring problems from people to the national assembly and develop a solution,” he added.
Voter apathy and turnout can be a problem, even in established democracies with vibrant multiparty systems. The U.S. estimated turnout in the past five presidential elections has run from a low of 49 percent to just over 57 percent of eligible voters.
While there are myriad of reasons given for low voter turnout in the U.S., Laotians appear to be indifferent because they think the election is fixed.
Only the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party is legally allowed to hold effective power. In the 2011 elections the party won 128 seats and only four approved, nonpartisan candidates won seats.
The party’s stranglehold on elective office goes all the way to the top as President Choummaly Sayasone, a lieutenant general in the Lao People’s Army, has held the top spot since 2006. He was also general secretary of the LPRP from 2006 until January when he did not seek reelection to the LPRP’s central committee, an indication he may retire.
Vice President Bounnhang Vorachit succeeded Choummaly Saysaone as general secretary in a move that appears to put him in line for the presidency.
While people know the elections for the National Assembly and provincial counsels are important, the lack of any real change seems to put a damper on Laos’ enthusiasm.
“The election is a big issue, but the majority of people do not give any importance to it because whoever comes in doesn’t make any changes,” the Savannakhet province resident said.
Davone Vangvichit, president of National Assembly’s Law and Government Committee, told RFA the election isn’t fixed.
“Intellectuals, businessmen, and individuals who are not from the party and government have a right to run for general election,” he said. “People who are 21 or older are eligible for candidacy without discrimination, but they must be selected by relevant bodies [national election committee] pursuant to the rule of law.”
Davone Vangvichit also attempted to deflect criticism that the government turns a deaf ear to its people.
“The representatives are always concerned about peoples’ lives,” he told RFA. “In particular, we disseminate the result of the regular legislative session to the people. What the critics say might not be true.”
Ordinary Laotians' interest might be piqued if the government took a couple of different approaches, residents there told RFA.
“It would be good if the representatives actually served people and protected their interests,” said the resident from Vientiane.
And for the resident from Savannakhet province, “What I would like the representatives to do is to give people the freedom of expression.”
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Susksavanh. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.