PRAGUE — The massive, red-stone headquarters of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) -- named after the two main regions of the Czech Republic -- is located on Prague's Street of Political Prisoners, just across from the capital's decayed art nouveau train station. The road was named in 1946 -- the very year that the Communists won a plurality in a democratic election -- in honor of resistance fighters imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II. The Gestapo had located its headquarters on this same street, in a massive building once owned by a prominent Jewish family. So it is that the twin horrors of Nazi and communist oppression continue to haunt this corner of the Czech capital.
When I suggest to Jiri Dolejs, KSCM vice chairman and member of Parliament, that the location of the party's headquarters on a street named after political prisoners is a grim irony, he chuckles and admits that there is an "obvious paradox." The communist regime that ruled Czechoslovakia from 1948 until the peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution interned more than 250,000 political prisoners. The most famous, playwright Vaclav Havel, was elected the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. When Havel passed away last December at age 75, a spontaneous crowd descended upon Prague's central Wenceslas Square to erect an impromptu vigil; the candles would remain there for an entire month. For a brief moment, the world's attention focused on the heroic philosopher king and his legacy of nonviolent resistance to communist totalitarianism.
So it's strange that less than a year after Havel's death, communism in the Czech Republic is making a comeback. A series of recent surveys show that the party -- which has never fully apologized for its four decades of authoritarian rule -- is the second-most popular in the country, its support hovering slightly above 20 percent. The next parliamentary elections, which may be called sometime in upcoming weeks as the current center-right government hangs by a thread, could see the Communists return to power in coalition with the opposition Social Democrats. This would make the Czech Republic the first post-communist European country in which a communist party returned to government.
To those Czechs who still recite Havel's 1989 campaign slogan "Love and truth conquer lies and hatred" without irony, this should be nothing short of a national crisis. Some have argued that the KSCM ought to have been proscribed after the transition to democracy, as a far-right party was in 2010. Writing in the Czech liberal weekly Respekt, journalist Katerina Safarikova calls the conundrum over the Communist Party "a debate our fathers should have settled in the early 1990s," back when a ban would have been most popular. Political commentator Petr Novacek warns that, if the Social Democrats enter into coalition with the Communists, they would risk "becoming the black sheep of the Socialist International."
To Dolejs, however, this is all overreaction. He doesn't look or sound like the spokesman for a "hard-core Stalinist" party, which is how Safarikova describes the KSCM. With his cheery demeanor, mullet haircut, and ill-fitting sport coat, he resembles a Soviet-era used-car salesman, though the product he's selling -- state control of the economy -- is admittedly more dangerous than an old Skoda. Dolejs is an ardent science-fiction fan: Posters from various sci-fi conventions claim space on his office walls alongside those of Karl Marx and Albert Einstein, as well as campaign advertisements featuring Dolejs's smiling mug. This motley assortment may speak as much to my interlocutor's vanity as it does to the KSCM's lack of a serviceable history.
Dolejs joined the party in January 1989, at age 28. This was historically inopportune, as less than a year later the communist regime would be swept out of power. At a mere 51, Dolejs is significantly younger than most of the party's voters, whose average age is 75. A leader of the KSCM's reformist wing, he's one of the country's most well-known Communists, writing a blog for a popular Czech Internet news portal. In 2006, he was the target of a violent attack by far-right thugs, who beat his face to a bloody pulp while shouting anti-communist epithets. The Czech Parliament unanimously condemned the attack, and Dolejs earned widespread sympathy.