Can the Communist Party Take Back the Czech Republic?

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC—The Czech Republic is one of the most successful members of the former Soviet Empire. Yet Czechs with whom I recently spoke fear liberty is in retreat. The former Communist Party might reenter government after elections later this month. 

Czechoslovakia was “liberated” by the Red Army at the end of World War II. After the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, the so-called Velvet Revolution ousted the Czech Communist Party. Czechoslovakia soon adopted wide-ranging free market economic reforms and split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. 

In March Milos Zeman became the country’s first popularly elected president. The former Social Democratic prime minister has roiled Czech politics by claiming ever more expansive authority. 

Most dramatically, after the prime minister’s summer resignation President Zeman appointed a leftist government against the wishes of the parliamentary majority. The new cabinet lost a vote of confidence, but remains as caretaker until the upcoming election. 

Equally controversial are the president’s policies.  As I wrote in my new Forbes online article:

Moreover, the president reversed course on the EU after appealing to supporters of the Euro-skeptic [former President Vaclav] Klaus during the presidential campaign.  Once in office President Zeman hoisted the EU flag over the Prague Castle, which hosts the presidential office, and signed the European Stability Mechanism, the EU bail-out fund.  He describes himself as a “Euro-Federalist,” advocates common European fiscal, tax, foreign, and defense policies, and supports adopting the Euro as the Czech currency.

The greater worry is the revival of the Communist Party. As memories of Communist repression fade, some Czechs long for the perceived stability of the past. 

The party’s revival is particularly incongruous because the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, or KCSM, remains largely unreconstructed. It is the only Communist Party in Eastern Europe which still unashamedly calls itself Communist. 

In 1996 the Party called its 40 year rule “one of the greatest periods of social and economic growth.” Two years ago the KCSM offered its condolences to North Korea after the death of dictator Kim Jong-il in 2011. 

The Party has benefited from the collapse of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS)—the leading party on the right since it was founded by Klaus more than two decades ago. Scandal forced out ODS Prime Minister Petr Necas in the summer. Moreover, the Czech Republic has only begun to recover from a recession stretching back to 2011. 

The Communists see an opportunity to reenter government. Vice Chairman Jiri Dolejs said the idea of allowing the KCSM into government is “losing its taboo as a topic for conversation.” 

The Social Democrats long refused to cooperate with the KCSM in parliament. However, desire for power is causing the CSSD to rethink its policy. 

With the Social Democrats receiving close to a third and the Communists topping 20 percent in polls for the upcoming parliamentary election, the new government could involve either formal coalition or informal cooperation between these two parties.

However, President Zeman might derail this simple outcome. Once a Social Democrat, he has established the Party of Citizens’ Rights Zemanovci (SPOZ), which appears likely to pass the five percent threshold and win seats in parliament for the first time. Other possible entrants include the Christian Democrats, the Greens, and a new party, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens 2011 (ANO 2011), established by billionaire entrepreneur Andrej Babis. 

Still, the mere possibility of a Communist revival generates concern. It would be a striking step by the heirs to the Velvet Revolution.

The Czech Republic’s future obviously is up to the Czech people. Nevertheless, they should ponder carefully before entrusting their future to the party which so badly failed them in the past. Whatever the question, it is hard to imagine the Communist Party to be the answer.