Czech Communists attempt to cast off old image

The party hopes to attract voters June 15 by spotlighting female and younger candidates.

Katerina Konecna is still a university student, but she is already well-positioned to win a seat in the Czech parliament in elections June 15.

Both idealistic and pragmatic, the 21-year-old looks set to crash through glass ceilings in a country where men traditionally hold political power. If she wins her race, she will become the youngest member of parliament in Czech history.

"Politics isn't just about experience," Ms. Konecna says.

"Parliament should be a reflection of society, with young and old, men and women. I think I can do a lot for ordinary citizens in this country."

But she has one huge political handicap – she is a devoted communist, and in the Czech Republic that means political isolation, ostracism, and exile to the extreme left.

Just 12 years ago, this country threw off the shackles of one of the most totalitarian communist regimes of the Soviet bloc. Vaclav Havel, a former political prisoner and anti-communist dissident, became president, a post he hasn't abandoned since. Still traumatized by a state system that routinely punished its citizens for their family background or beliefs, most Czechs react to anyone who admits to being a communist with disdain and even anger.

"Certainly, we need more women in parliament," says Petr Pavlik, acting chair of the Charles University Center for Gender Studies. "We are behind most other European countries, and I don't think this 21-year-old woman is too young, but it is a shame she is a communist."

Konecna is not a formal member of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), the only unreformed communist party in Central Europe, but she does stand by its program of limiting privatization and increasing social benefits, and she openly calls herself a communist.

The KSCM is the only party that actively favors women candidates – offering female contenders for various posts around the country. It has placed Konecna third on its candidate list for the North Moravian region, which means she is virtually guaranteed a spot in the lower house of parliament, where the average age is 49. Just 15 percent of deputies are women and that is expected to drop to 6 or 7 percent after this year's elections.

On the other hand, communist seats, now 24, are expected to increase. Despite its overall disfavor, the KSCM still has a stable base of support in poorer regions and among the elderly. Recent polls give the Communists 18 percent of public support, up from 11 percent in the last elections.

That could put the party in an advantageous position, given that no party has a majority. The next government, like the present one, is likely to be a shaky centrist coalition, but the KSCM has been repeatedly excluded from coalition talks and its closest kin, the ruling Social Democrats, passed a resolution forbidding negotiation with the Communists.

"No one will touch them," says Milan Znoj, director of the Institute of Political Science in Prague. "The Communists are not considered a democratic party."

Konecna's prominence in the KSCM is widely perceived as a shallow attempt by the party to regain credibility.

All current Communist deputies are over 40 and only 5 are women. Tired of pariah status, the party is undergoing a youth-oriented makeover and trying to use feminist credentials to woo leftist voters.

"It is difficult to tell if this is a serious gesture or just an artificial pre-election tactic," says Blanka Knotkova, a lecturer in women's studies at Charles University. "In

order to win public trust, the Communists would have to distance themselves from their totalitarian past, which they have not done so far."

"I think most people were better off before the [democratic] revolution," says Konecna, though she acknowledges, " some bad things did happen."

"Now, the Communists have changed," she maintains. "We have a different economic policy and we are now based on democratic principles, which wasn't exactly the case in the 1960s or '70s."

Both of Konecna's parents were party officials, meaning she grew up with privileges in travel, education, and even grocery shopping while the party was in power. After the revolution, being a Communist instantly became a stigma, and her parents both lost their jobs in the agriculture administration.

Two years ago, Konecna became active in the Communist Party herself. As soon as she announced her candidacy last fall, several friends stopped speaking to her, and she began receiving threatening letters.

"A lot of the insults are very vulgar," she says. "I don't let it bother me though. "I believe in this party and its ideals. I don't like how so many politicians changed their coats after the revolution."

Konecna holds many traditional communist beliefs, including a distrust of Western countries and policies.

After the Czech government sent a military hospital to help US troops in Afghanistan last week, Konecna commented, "I don't agree with the American attacks on Afghanistan. They killed a lot of civilians and didn't catch the guy they were after, as usual. I don't have a problem with the Czech government sending a humanitarian aid, but it is unjust that Czechs have to mop after the Americans made a mess of things and injured all those people."

Even so, she is restrained compared with many Communists. She doesn't insist on state control of Czech industry or the abolition of private property.

Analysts say she and other young communists may eventually mold the party into a moderate left. Her main issues – education, unemployment and support for children – are naturally youth-oriented and of interest to large portions of the population.

"The main thing is the state has a responsibility to take care of its weaker citizens," she says.

Konecna, who is an economics major, says she will continue her studies while in parliament. Leisure pursuits, such as going to discos with friends on weekends, will largely become a thing of the past.

"I realize my life will never be so carefree again," she says but adds that "now it is time to take some responsibility and do something for other people."

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