Election Day Coma

from : room 10, Yu Houa guesthouse. Phongsali, Laos

Rumors had been circling for days amongst the sizable traveling community in Laos. The elections are tomorrow, the elections are all weekend, all transport stops, restaurants close, whatever shall we eat? All the speculation made it out to be quite a to do and I, long in a Laotian frame of mind, was becoming quite tizzy at the thought of something, anything occurring that would take me out of my daily regimen of big meals, siestas and the occasional temple.

The Laotians didn't seem a virulently political group but I was familiar enough with western media to know that elections in developing nations always yield protests, denunciations or at the very least accusations of stealing votes. I quickly realized that if I had wanted to play foreign correspondent reporting on election wrought social upheaval, I would have been better off somewhere like Zimbabwe or perhaps Florida during the last presidential race. Instead I'm trapped in the surreal twilight zone that is Phongsali in the middle of election fever. Only fever is not appropriate metaphor to describe the mood here. 'Election coma' is more apt.

Not that I didn't go out looking for trouble. At 8 am this morning I had been heartened by the Laotian flag everywhere in evidence, accompanied by red banners with the crossed hammer and sickle. Government buildings had photocopied information on the candidates taped on their walls, many of whom bear medals in an abundance I thought went out of fashion with the Soviet Union. Missing though were the young Marxists spewing fiery rhetoric and farmers in black pajamas marching, shouting slogans and thrusting pitchforks into the air. I decided to hunt down the action by following one of the occasional groups of people drifting towards another of the incongruous government buildings. Before one of these great white mansions surrounded by the squat brown huts of the proletariat people were being shown through the gate by a jeans-clad young man. Every time he took a drag on his cigarette he'd readjust the machine gun that had slipped down his shoulder. I squatted on my haunches with a group of loitering locals waiting for him to open fire on some Democracy agitators, but when none appeared I wandered off to find something more threatening.

I came upon a billboard picturing Laotians of various ethnic groups at the ballot box. I thought the man in the foreground, sliding a piece of paper into a shoebox with a slit in the top, held his arms in the manner of someone in handcuffs. Ah-hah! The painters subversive political jab at the one party system. Before I could document this evidence of protest with my camera, a soldier ran up waving his hands at me. Finally I was having my freedom suppressed by a jackbooted organ of the dictatorial regime! But the fellow was a foot shorter than me and gave an apologetic, nervous grin as he followed his orders, so my righteous indignation quickly faded to flustered bewilderment. In fact all over the town I could see men in uniforms loafing about on dusty street corners, joking with passersby and admiring one of the NGO SUVs that drove past. In short they were doing anything but frog-marching a cowed populace to the polls. I perked up as I noticed a more promising crowd of people gathering near a set of bleachers overlooking a grassy area, the towns stadium and surely the focal point of the body politick. As I drew closer I realized half the town was there, shouting and cheering. Something had them very fired up and I was excited that perhaps I had stumbled upon a protest reaching a crescendo of antigovernment fury. It was a volleyball game.

Everywhere I walked the election seemed a rather poor show. No dogmatic invective, looted storefronts, overturned cars or hurled Molotovs. I thought again about Los Angeles after the OJ verdict and longed for the political involvement displayed back home. Perhaps a lack of a saxophone playing candidate and MTV trying to 'Rock the Vote' had left Laotians cold to the process, for Phongsali had simply shut down for the day so that those required to vote could be in town. As everyone over the age of eighteen fell into that category, an already sleepy town had slipped into a catatonic state. Nothing could cross the city limits in either direction, shops were closed and the market empty, houses remained firmly boarded up and worst of all, transportation had indeed ground to a halt. For the small band of travelers marooned here, finding ways to pass the time became the only challenge.

From a chair on mainstreet I watched as four French paid the bill in one restaurant and wandered out into the deserted thoroughfare. After shuffling their feet and shrugging their shoulders they loped into a another place across the street with a defeated air. They must have been desperate as the food here offers as little distraction as the town itself. Pork or chicken. Noodles or rice. Fried or in soup form. An Israeli I saw sipping tea as slowly as possible in the sitting area of my guesthouse staggers by almost asleep on her feet. I half expect a piece of tumbleweed to blow past. As for me, I am playing with the little Chinese boy on the floor at my feet. He had been given a pair of scissors and an empty cigarette carton to play with, so I folded up a piece and cut out a string of hand holding humanoids. This made me a hero in his eyes until he returned with a comic book, pointed at a swooping fiery Phoenix shooting bolts of lightning, and handed back the scissors and cardboard with an expectant look. My skills had already reached their limit and he quickly lost interest.

Election day in this remote town offered all the excitement of a lazy Sunday afternoon. The loudspeakers broadcasting results from the telephone poles eventually fell silent, a few shops selling Chinese army shoes and bars of soap opened for business and the winning team from the volleyball game went by cheering from the back of a pickup. The losers shuffled by much later with heads hanging.

The next day at the post offices and school buildings, posters of five of the ten candidates pictures were pulled down. The winners had not a medal amongst them, which is perhaps why they look so stern. Buses resumed service, the marketplace bustled and all across the country party members congratulated each other on another sweeping referendum. As for me, having never seen a more low-key political event, I realized what all the security had done and had a fresh appreciation for political freedom in America. In my small hometown in Arizona alone, when the National Forest Service imposed parking fees to help pay for trail maintenance, we had protest marches, petitions, acts of senseless vandalism and on the end, a whole lot more to write home about.

~ Nigel



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