FOR more than eight months since elections failed to produce a coherent result, the Czech Republic has been operating without a confirmed government. That could change on July 11th when Andrej Babis is expected to win a vote of confidence in parliament on his second attempt to form a minority government. Comprised of Mr Babis’s ANO party in coalition with the Social Democrats, the government will rely on the support of the Communist Party. Unlike elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, the Czech communists are historically contiguous with the organisation that ran the country during the cold war. Those links with the past have made co-operating with the Communists taboo, until now. Mr Babis is himself a former Party member who has since transformed into an unrepentant capitalist, media mogul and party boss. In keeping with his branding as a political maverick, he leads the first democratically elected Czech government to have worked with the Communists.

Other communist parties in the former Eastern Bloc either disbanded or reformed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, often under a less tainted socialist label. But the Czech communists never broke from a party history that involved censorship, show trials, judicial executions and the jailing of dissenters. More than 250,000 people were convicted of political crimes between 1948 and 1989, and some 80,000 people endured stints of forced labour in uranium mines. Softened interpretations of communism such as glasnost, perestroika and, in Hungary, “goulash” eased restrictions on speech and opened some economies to market-based trade in the 1980s. But Czechoslovakia, which was run by more ideologically committed communists, maintained a hardline approach through to the collapse of the regime. Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who would go on to become the first post-communist president, was jailed as late as May 1989, and the Soviet troops that invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 stayed until 1991.

Despite this record, the Czech Communists have maintained a presence in parliament. Though their share of the vote dipped to 7.8% in the elections of 2017, the party has generally drawn support from around 10% of the electorate, while participating in local and regional governments. Once stereotyped as the party of pensioner nostalgists, the Communists counteracted the effects of demographic decline by appealing to new voters aggrieved by globalisation, and garnered their strongest support in the Czech Republic’s economically depressed, post-industrial north-west. Now, as those same voters gravitate towards far-right parties, the Communists are hoping that by co-operating with the government, and exercising influence, they might reassert their appeal. It remains to be seen if they will get credit for any of Mr Babis’s future successes or whether sacrificing their anti-establishment credentials might instead accelerate their decline. 

Though nominally not in the government, the Communists do have the ability to bring down Mr Babis at any moment and, thus, have a modicum of power. They extracted several concessions during the coalition negotiations, in effect vetoing a nominee for foreign minister. While Mr Babis pledges to keep Czechs in the Brussels mainstream, Milos Zeman (the country’s irascible president) and the Communists remain partial to their counterparts in China and Russia. Together they form a reactionary front capable of influencing the country’s geopolitical outlook. The country’s liberal elites (who comprise part of the opposition), never mind those Czechs who suffered at the hands of the 20th-century Communist regime, are appalled by these developments. But there is a sense that in a parliament also populated by populists, members of the Pirate Party and xenophobes, the contemporary Communists may no longer be the worst of the bunch.