Communists celebrate success, but doors to government remain closed

Vaclav havel and Vladimir Spidla, photo: CTK

The Czech Republic is still reeling from the unexpected success of the Communist Party in the weekend's elections, and analysts are scratching their heads trying to come up with the reasons behind their success. But in many ways it was a hollow victory - the party remains politically untouchable, and its chances of entering government are minimal. Rob Cameron examines the party's mixed fortunes in this report.

The leader of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, Miroslav Grebenicek, photo: CTK
The leader of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, Miroslav Grebenicek, addressing the party faithful on May 1st - once celebrated as the "workers' holiday". The Communist Party has been the real success story of this election - they were the only party to make any gains in parliament, and now control one fifth of the lower house. But despite these impressive gains, President Vaclav Havel chose to exclude them from talks on forming a coalition. Jiri Pehe, political analysts and external adviser to President Havel:

Jiri Pehe: "President Havel, for example, decided early on that he is not going to engage in talks with this Communist Party, because it is not a reformed Communist party. On the other hand, he has never said that it should be somehow legally denied, or constitutionally denied to the Communists to be part of any talks."

The direct descendant of the totalitarian Communist Party that ruled Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989 has made some attempts at reform. They say they're now committed to political plurality and a multi-party state. But unlike other Communist parties in the former Eastern Bloc, which have remodelled themselves under the monikers "democratic left" or "democratic socialist", the Czech Communist Party stubbornly refuses to change its name. Jiri Dolejs is one of the party's 41 MPs:

Jiri Dolejs:"The rehabilitation of the Communist Party is not about the name. The term "Communism" has its roots in Christian ideals. Communism means a fair society. Our members see the term "Communist" as a defence against attack from their political opponents. Using the term "Communist" is a way of defending themselves, morally and politically."

But not even a name change will be enough to open the doors to government. The Communists are anti-NATO and lukewarm on the EU. They want to raise the state's role in the economy and stop privatisation. That goes against the policies of all the major parties, including the Social Democrats, who've been given the task of forming a new government. And it's not just policy differences: there's also the tricky problem of the past. Opponents - including President Havel, a former dissident and veteran of Communist prisons - say the party simply hasn't gone far enough to distance itself from its totalitarian past. Jiri Pehe again:

Vaclav Havel and Vladimir Spidla, photo: CTK
Jiri Pehe:"I think that President Havel's attitude is the result of two factors. One of them is his personal experience with the Communists. And the second is the fact that the Communist Party has not reformed itself and is still basically faithful to the same principles that it had propagated for forty years."

So how long will they remain in isolation? Vladimir Spidla, the leader of the Social Democrats, repeated on Sunday his party would not form a coalition with the Communists. It might be a tempting proposition - with 111 seats in the lower house, a Communist-Social Democrat government would be far more stable than the centre-left coalition now under construction. But the unreformed Communists are still political untouchables, and Mr Spidla knows it. He may contemplate wooing their support for a minority Social Democrat government should a centre-left coalition fail, but that's about as far as it goes. And so it seems that even after this election, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia will still be left out in the cold.