Despite the completed transition to a market economy, the form of state in Laos still relies on Communist structures and relationships. The most significant among these are
- ‘Leading role of the Party’ – meaning that each decision-making body in the formal state structure is controlled and can be advised and even overruled by parallel units of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) that shadow the management structure of the state (and state-linked enterprises), and that party membership is one of the most important criteria in selection and promotion of civil servants at mid- and higher level. Non-party structures, including private associations, are prohibited from developing activities that explicitly or implicitly dispute the party’s leadership or contradict its policies. This constrains their legal role to a choice of complementary activities under close supervision.
- ‘Democratic centralism’ – meaning that, in the absence of fundamental contradictions of interest, there is no utility in pluralist competition. Instead, lower units must accept decisions of higher units, while higher units must base their decision-making on consultation from below. The renewal of leadership through internal promotion is seen as ensuring this tight and coherent approach.
- ‘Vanguard’ leadership – meaning that only the most loyal cadres are admitted into the Party, with other ‘progressive’ individuals organised through a range of ‘mass’ or ‘patriotic’ organisations. The most important are the Lao Women’s Union, the Lao Front for National Construction, and the Lao Youth Organisation. In Laos, these are more tightly integrated into the state than in other current and former Communist countries; there is little practical distinction between the mass organisations and the ministries, in terms of decision making and in organisational-hierarchical terms.
The application of the above principles means that there is little separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers. For example, the National Assembly (NA) meets only for a few weeks every year, and mostly approves without significant review or discussion documents already prepared by the executive branch. The NA has gradually expanded its role in recent years, towards an oversight role that can provide feedback to decision-makers elsewhere. But its remains dependent on the Party state, which, in particular, approves all candidates for election to the NA.
Rather than democratisation in the sense of western political models, therefore, reform in Laos takes the form of consolidation of technocratic structures, capacities and networks that can moderate, influence and possibly counterbalance personalised, factionalised or ‘old guard’ tendencies in the Party State.
‘Good governance’ within the Lao political-economy is therefore essentially related to the reinforcement of hierarchical decision-making, improvement of consultation and internal meritocratic selection, and the consolidation and improvement in the Party oversight function. The imprisonment of officials designated as corrupt or dissident in ‘re-education’ centres is a central element of ‘good governance’ as understood by the Lao elite.