Twilight of the Communist Party in Czechia?

Former Communist Party leader Vojtěch Filip

The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia no longer has parliamentary representation. It is the first time since the fall of Communism that the party failed to gain any seats in the Czech Chamber of Deputies. As the country remembers the Velvet Revolution that started on November 17, 1989, one could ask whether this is likely a permanent demise of the Czech Communists, or just a temporary setback.

February 1948,  Prague | Photo: Czech Television

The Communist Party has been a permanent political force in Czech politics for nearly exactly one century. Founded in 1921, it was a highly visible but rather marginal political party before WWII. Strengthened by the defeat of German Nazism and the fact that Czechoslovakia was liberated by the Soviet Army, it seized power in a bloodless coup d’etat in 1948. It then ruled the country for more than four decades, officially in the name of the working class and the ideologically conscious intelligentsia. But the general sense of corruption and growing economic backwardness made a bad joke of the idea that the country was a haven of progress and social peace.

When the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev introduced reforms called Perestroika in the late 1980s, it became clear that the power of the Soviet empire was waning. While other Soviet satellites like Poland and Hungary were already well on their way towards democracy in the summer of 1989, the Czech Communists still seemed to have a firm grip on power. Until in November of that year, a radical change came to Czechoslovakia, too. The Velvet Revolution led to a virtual collapse of Communist power. But the party itself did not completely collapse. In the first free elections, it received over 13 percent of the vote and it retained a constant and significant presence in the Parliament throughout the 1990s. Then, in 2002 it got nearly one-fifth of the vote and celebrated a comeback of sorts. But then the support for the Communists started to stagnate.

Petr Just | Photo: Elena Horálková,  Czech Radio

While in 2003, there were still around 100,000 party members, they started literally dying out and now the membership is just over 26,000. Surely the leadership of the party must have realized that something was seriously wrong. But they didn’t and the result is that in the general elections in October this year, the Communist Party failed to gain any seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the Lower House of the Czech Parliament.

The reaction was swift. The Party elected a new leader: Kateřina Konečná is 40, a member of the European Parliament, and promises to modernize the Communist Party and unite the left under its wings. Can she succeed? Political scientist Petr Just of the Metropolitan University in Prague is skeptical:

“I think the chances are very marginal. She says at the same time, that she wants to lock the party in its hardline positions. And this is definitely not a good starting point if she is serious in her intention to unite the left.”

So, should we consider the elections of 2021 as a kind of a “coup de grace”, the final blow to Czech communism?

Kateřina Konečná | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

“It’s hard to say since we are talking just a short time that Kateřina Konečná became the leader of the Party. We know some of her ideas, but we do not know enough details about how she intends to go about realizing them. We also do not know, how the party members will respond to her declared campaign for a real change.”

“In my opinion, the potential of the party to bounce back and reach more electoral support is rather low. So, I would be siding with those who predict, that the time of the Communist Party in the highest echelons of real political power is over.”

This does not mean that the socialist ideals that the Communist Party so ostensibly represented for most of the past century are dead. It just appears that a party of that name is very unlikely to lead the Czech radical left any time soon.