Communist party haunted by past, party "rebels" calling for change

Jiri Dolejs, photo: CTK

The past three months of complicated government talks have shown just how much the country's past is still affecting the present. The Communist Party's unwillingness to reform itself to a large extent "distorts" the Czech political scene. The Czech Green Party and the Christian Democrats - who would both be natural candidates for a centre-left coalition elsewhere in Europe - are seen as parties right of centre because they want nothing to do with the Communists. A reform of the Communist Party would clearly benefit everyone - including the Communists themselves -but can they do it?

Jiri Dolejs,  photo: CTK
Sixteen years after the fall of communism the Communist Party is still largely unreformed and haunted by the past. Although the Communists have been accepted at grass-root level and local administration, inviting them to join the government is still a big taboo. The only other party on the left - the Social Democrats lean on them for support in negotiations with right wing parties but there can be no question of open cooperation. Jiri Dolejs - deputy chairman and one of the relatively young pro-reform party members says it is time to step out of the Social Democratic Party's shadow and work on giving the Communist Party more credibility. He has called for an extraordinary party conference to discuss the challenges ahead.

"As far as the past is concerned we should not side-step issues and clearly state that we distance ourselves from the abuse of power committed by the party in the past, to confirm that we are ready to protect private ownership, to say that we are not against the EU but are ready to support EU integration and benefit from it - this and many other things."

Party chairman Vojtech Filip himself is not above criticism - he was accused of cooperating with the former communist secret service although a court ruled that he may not have been aware of what was happening. As a result he is not eager to hold an extraordinary party conference which could threaten his position.

Josef Vondruska
This is not the first time that Mr. Dolejs has pushed for change and previous attempts have been squashed by hard-liners. "We need to settle with the past but the majority of our members think that opening up old wounds is not a good idea" Dolejs told Lidove Noviny. He and his supporters are viewed by many as "rebels". In a party where the average age of members is close to 70 and many people have a communist history the idea of settling with the past is not going to be well received. This week the party closed ranks around one of its deputies -Josef Vondruska - when former political prisoners said he was one of the prison guards who had beaten them up in a communist jailhouse.

Party hardliners say that these attacks in the media are intended to damage the party before the local and Senate elections - but reformers such as Jiri Dolejs say the party has to be in a position to actively counter them. However the pro-reform faction within the party is clearly in the minority and at best any reforms it manages to push through will be affected step-by-step rather than by leaps and bounds. Changing the party's name is not on Mr. Dolejs' agenda - he says he wants to change the content rather than the label.

"I do not think that a name change is on the table. Our credibility will not rise if we paint-over the name on our slate and remain the same on the inside - or even return to old practices".