With Social Democrats weak, Communist Party wielding most influence since 1989


Unlike many Communist parties in the former Eastern Bloc, the Czech Communists did not "rebrand" themselves as a modern left-wing party after they fell from power. Subsequently they were ignored by all the other parties in parliament for many years. But in recent times the Communists have acquired some legitimacy and - by propping up a weak Social Democrat government - a hitherto unseen degree of influence. But how hard-line is the Communist Party? And what do they want from the Social Democrats?

Miloslav Ransdorf: "Our condition is a return to left-wing policy by the Social Democrats."

Leading Communist Miloslav Ransdorf on why his party abstained in last Friday's vote of no confidence in the Social Democrat-led government of Stanislav Gross. The right-of-centre opposition Civic Democrats have labelled this co-operation a "red coalition". While it may not actually be a coalition, the Communists do have more influence than at any time since the Velvet Revolution.

"We can control individual measures of the government, put some directions into votes on the reform of public finances. And we can also support the left wing of the Social Democratic Party."

In the last general elections the majority of Czechs voted left, with the Social Democrats winning 70 seats and the Communists 41. Miloslav Ransdorf says the two parties have a lot in common.

"The programme platform of the Communist Party and the programme platform of the Social Democrats have some 70% in common. And it is a very good point of departure for both parties to collaborate in the future. We have no...reminiscences to the past, and we do not push for the restitution of former conditions. We are prepared to construct together a prosperous and democratic future of the Czech Republic in Europe."

Mr Ransdorf insists the Communists have changed a lot since 1989, but many Czechs - with painful memories of decades of Communist repression - are offended by the name, and horrified the party is regaining influence. But how hard-line are the Communists today? Journalist and political commentator Erik Best:

"I think there are two aspects. One is their public appearance. And in that respect in many cases they are the most objective party, they speak the most reasonably, they talk about eliminating corruption, they talk about taking care of the social classes, perhaps in a way that wasn't dealt with by the new capitalist regime.

"But on the other hand if you attend one of their meetings and if you see them behind closed doors, it's amazing that there has not been much change.

President Vaclav Klaus, photo: CTK
"Now I think it would be unfair to say that they favour Stalinist type purges or anything like that. But they certainly have not dropped their way of thinking."

The Communists are currently ahead of an increasingly beleaguered Social Democratic Party in the opinion polls. Erik Best says this development is being encouraged by President Vaclav Klaus, who founded the right-of-centre Civic Democrats in the early 1990s.

"If we look at the political crisis of the last two months we'll see that most of the steps that Klaus has taken have to a more or less degree benefited the Communists. Now of course he prefaces many of his steps by saying it's exactly for the opposite, to prevent the rise of the Communists.

Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, photo: CTK
"But by pushing down the Social Democrats, by being hard on Prime Minister Gross, he has in effect elevated the Communists to a new position. And if anyone is to thank or to blame it is more Klaus than Gross."

How do you see the future of the left in this country?

"I think there's a concerted effort on the part of the Civic Democrats to make sure that the left are the Communists, and there's a very good reason for that. If you have the Social Democrats as the primary force and they are sometimes veering into Civic Democrats territory with lower taxes and so forth, then that represents a real threat.

"A centrist voter can choose the Civic Democrats on some issues and the Social Democrats on other issues. If you shift away from that and you create a left force which is the Communists then it's much easier to fight against that as the Civic Democrats. Because you can say, look those are the Communists, go with the Civic Democrats. You can't say that with the Social Democrats.

"So the Civic Democrats and Klaus are trying to create a left with the Communists as the primary force, which means driving down the Social Democrats. That doesn't mean that they favour the Communists, they of course want to defeat the Communists in the elections. But they want to have a very clear rival on the left, the Communists, who are very easy to fight against."