from The Boston Globe
By Chawadee Nualkhair
VIENTIANE (Reuters) - Communist Laos held elections for its National Assembly on Sunday that officials hope will launch a nationwide push to lift one of Asia's poorest nations out of poverty.
Paramount among the goals facing the new assembly will be a drive to shed Laos's status as a Least Developed Country (LDC) where two-thirds of its roughly 5.8 million people still live on less than US$2 a day.
Despite being a one-horse race, Communist officials say a more diverse field of candidates aims to give greater voice to women and to minority groups in the new assembly.
A secretive, landlocked nation nestled between more developed Thailand and Vietnam, Laos has made economic gains in recent years but still faces many challenges to overcome poverty.
In the 1990s, the economy grew at an annual average rate of 6.3 percent and is forecast by the World Bank to grow 7.1 percent this year, thanks to foreign money funding mining and hydropower projects and mineral exports.
But foreign investors say Laos's legal structure is relatively untested, its infrastructure underdeveloped, and its banking system in need of reform -- factors that must be addressed if more foreign money is to pour in and people's lives improve.
"There is a realization that they are lagging behind and that it is a very risky position for the governing party," said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified.
A one-party state since the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao replaced the monarchy with a communist government in 1975, the outcome of Sunday's election is not in doubt.
But Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavat told Reuters it would be wrong to dismiss the assembly as a "rubber stamp" body simply because there was only one party.
"(Outsiders) judge the democratic system according to the Western democratic system," he said.
The government says the next 115-seat assembly will be more diverse and boast members with higher levels of education. Out of 175 candidates, 40 are women and 42 hail from minority ethnic groups such as the Hmong.
Officials hope women will make up at least 30 percent of the assembly, up from a previous 23 percent. Preliminary vote results are expected in 4-5 days.
"We have been very conscious of this imbalance in gender. That is why now in all fields of society we are trying to rectify that," said Yong Chanhthalansy, director-general of the Press Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It is one measure that has found favor among voters.
"I'm excited to vote this time because I will be voting for women candidates," said a drug store vendor who asked not to be identified. "Before, it was men all the time."
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