Communism Down and Out in the Czech Republic
The communist party in the Czech Republic lost all of its 15 seats in the country’s 200-member Chamber of Deputies following elections earlier this year, marking a new political low for the party that once ruled the former Soviet satellite state.
The incoming government is composed of a five-party coalition that bears no resemblance to an era when a single political party, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, was labeled – by the constitution – as the sole leading force of the state and society.
Czech voters, led by younger generations aged 18 to 30, “totally rejected the old post-communist parties and voted overwhelmingly for the five parties that promised to defend liberal democracy,” Jiri Pehe, a Prague-based political scientist, told VOA.
Elections in October essentially marked the end of the search for a “post-communist” identity that began with the party’s loss of power in 1989 following the fall of the Berlin Wall and then continued over three decades, according to Pehe.
The years immediately following the ousting of the communist party were marked by ardent support for democracy and freedom, but a questioning period followed.
“Back in the 1990s when Vaclav Havel was prominent, there was a lot of enthusiasm for change, but with time, a lot of the people who supported the change initially during the Havel years started doubting the transformation process and the value of liberal democracy, especially when the financial crisis and later the migration crisis hit,” Pehe said.
As recently as six years ago, leading figures of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, or KSCM, an offshoot of the former ruling party which disbanded after 1989, expressed confidence that history was still on their side and their political fortunes would improve. Although the KSCM has cast itself as a different entity and voiced criticism for the atrocities committed by the former ruling party, it still held on to notions of allying the country with China and Russia, calling into question the Czech Republic’s membership in both the European Union and NATO.
As it turns out, Czech communists found that message did not rally people to the party.
The head of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia resigned after the election. As the organization regroups, there are signs that some of its old habits could be changing. A party official recently acknowledged that there are different factions within the party itself, “contrary to the statute,” he said, which, to this day, prohibits factions and prohibits letting the outside world know of the existence of factions.
Milos Vystrcil takes pride in the fact that the Czech Senate, which he now leads, did away with remnants of the communist party quite a few years before the lower house of parliament. No candidate from the party has been elected to the 81-member Czech Senate since 2014.
Vystrcil told VOA of the deep impression the party’s rule made on his life when it was in power.
Now 61, Vystrcil recalled when the party weighed in on his application to grammar school.
“I had to pass entry exams. But whether I got admitted to the school did not only have to do with whether I did well in calculus, in mathematics, but it also was dependent upon what the party committee thought about me. The committee took into account how much my parents and myself were devoted to the ideals of the communist party,” Vystrcil recalled. He was 15 at the time.
Vystrcil recalled how that treatment meant many people “hated the system” even though most went along with the norms established by the party.
The disenchantment the general population felt toward communism at the height of the party’s power was echoed by others, including Andrej Babis, the outgoing prime minister.
“You all know that I was a communist party member, and I’m not proud of it,” Babis told the audience at an event marking the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
He said he knew he wasn’t as brave as people like Havel, but offered his “gratitude and humility” to Havel and others who were persecuted at the time but held on to their belief that the country could do better. It was thanks to them that he had the opportunity to run in elections, he said.
Political analyst Jiri Pehe, a former aid to Havel, said although he and others advocated for banning the communist party immediately after the Velvet Revolution, Havel favored letting the country’s emerging democratic process to determine its fate.
In October, soon after election results came in and it became clear that the ruling coalition lacked the votes to stay in power, Prime Minister Babis took to Twitter to announce that he led his entire Cabinet to resign as soon as the newly-elected parliament held its first assembly, in keeping with his earlier promise and “in keeping with the Czech constitution.”
A week ago, Petr Fiala was sworn in as the new prime minister, leading a coalition government with both conservative and progressives, to tackle the continuing pandemic and other challenges.
Meanwhile the newly installed leader of the communist party, Katerine Konecna, said her priority is trying to build support among young people.