Five Minutes to Midnight

Czechoslovakia had a referendum of sorts on Monday, and even though no ballots were cast or counted, the result was a crushing vote of no-confidence in an already tottering regime. Mass walkouts involving millions of workers took place across the country, with even government employees joining in at the bidding of Civic Forum, the new coalition of opposition groups.

The strike was a display of people power that can only send further spasms of alarm through the ruling Communist Party as it tries to retain some semblance of authority. No less important, it was a show of strength and cohesion that will fuel the determination of dissident forces to press on.

What seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago now seems to have become virtually inevitable. The party that seized power in 1948 suddenly finds that after a lifetime of debauchery and corruption, the bill for its bad habits is coming due. Every effort is being made to hang on, of course, to try to repair the damage of decades.

Thus, certain hard-liners, beginning with Milos Jakes, the widely hated party leader, are being jettisoned. Thus, the regime has been compelled to open talks with Civic Forum leaders, giving de facto recognition to people who only a short time earlier would have simply been locked up for sedition. Thus, Karel Urbanek, the new party chief, hints at a willingness to give up the party's monopoly on power and accept a political system that involves many parties of equal standing.

None of these late-in-the-day gestures are likely to prove in the least resuscitative.

The party now feels the consequences of the brutal purge it carried out after the Prague Spring of 21 years ago, when a half-million of its most liberal members were banished from political life. It is a party, so far as can be seen, that seems unable to find within itself the human resources to devise and carry out credible reform policies. It is party dominated by rigid and not very smart leaders who appear to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It is a party that seems to be utterly bewildered by the cataclysmic change in fortunes it has undergone.

All over Prague, all over Czechoslovakia, the hands of public clocks are being fixed at 5 minutes to 12. It is far from subtle notice to the regime that its time is almost up.

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