From the archives: Czech Lawmakers Abolish Power of Communist Party
PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- After only five hours of debate, an emergency session of the Czechoslovak National Assembly on Wednesday voted unanimously to abolish the leading role of the Communist Party.
The assembly also voted unanimously to eliminate the mandatory teaching of Marxist-Leninist ideology in the country’s schools--a key demand of the students who have been the vanguard of the revolution.
The votes, in the form of amendments to the Czechoslovak constitution, legally end communism’s 41-year-old domination of the country and pave the way for meeting opposition demands to build a new coalition government before next Sunday. Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec pledged Tuesday to form such a government.
Earlier in the day, a recently appointed member of the ruling Politburo suggested that free elections could come as early as next year. “I think it’s possible in the next 12 months,” Communist youth leader Vasil Mohorita said.
At 37, Mohorita is the youngest Politburo member and a man considered to have reformist tendencies.
The sheer speed of the Communist regime’s collapse in Czechoslovakia has propelled the country in less than two weeks from one of the last hard-line holdouts to the forefront of reforming East European nations.
Among these countries, only Poland has so far formed a coalition government.
“The revolution is continuing much quicker than we expected,” said spokesman Jiri Dienstbier of the opposition group Civic Forum at an evening news conference, which was interrupted by the National Assembly vote.
At the National Theater in Bratislava, where the opposition’s leading figure, playwright Vaclav Havel, was attending a performance, a packed audience rose to its feet and enthusiastically applauded the news.
The scene was shown on national television.
Dienstbier said that because Civic Forum does not consider itself a political party, it did not want to be represented in the new coalition.
However, he said the group had told Adamec that it advocates an “uncompromised non-Communist civilian” as interior minister and would be willing to accept an “uncompromised Communist civilian” as defense minister.
The word uncompromised was taken to mean an absence of direct links with the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the so-called Prague Spring reform movement.
Wednesday’s emergency session of the National Assembly was the first such debate ever carried live on Czechoslovak television, and there was some blunt talking.
Aton Blazej, dean of the Communist Party’s training academy, warned that political pluralism presents the party with a new challenge.
“Many of us are not prepared for these conditions, and there is no time to learn,” he said. “There are no speed courses for learning democracy.”
Socialist Party deputy Blanka Hykova said the Communist system had failed the people. “Whatever laws we pass today will not change this,” she said.
Some Communist deputies, however, stoutly defended the party’s record.
The parliamentary votes came on a day when Defense Minister Milan Vaclavik tried to ease fears of a possible military crackdown, describing reports that the army was about to intervene as slander.
“This is not true,” Vaclavik told the assembly. “This army has respect for our traditions and values. It has never gone against the interest of the people.”
Those involved in the opposition movement have for days worried about the possibility of a crackdown, but these apprehensions rose sharply this week with reports that much of the army had been confined to barracks since the mass opposition rallies began and had been denied access to mail or media reports.
With the Communist leadership in disarray and an opposition still in its formative stages, some feared that the army might attempt to move.
A few hours after Vaclavik’s statement, which was carried live on Czechoslovak television, another statement was read by a Defense Ministry spokesman following the national evening news.
“No special emergency measures are being taken,” Col. Stanislav Pohorel declared. “The Czechoslovak army is not being prepared to intervene.”
At an evening news conference, Dienstbier issued a Civic Forum appeal to the army.
“You’ve come from the people; please honor their will and protect their interest,” he said.
Western military sources who have been monitoring the situation closely confirmed that they could detect no signs of either a crackdown against the general population or a military coup against the political leadership.
“If there was anything, we should have been able to detect it,” said one source.
In his parliamentary remarks, Vaclavik also complained of physical attacks on military officers and harassment of their families.
A Communist member of Parliament, who identified herself to the house only as “a wife and a mother,” said, “In the last few days, there have been insults of children, including children of the interior minister. It’s already in the nursery schools.”
Interior Minister Frantisek Kincl has been among those seen as primarily responsible for the police crackdown against a student protest Nov. 17--the event that triggered the collapse of the hard-line Communist regime.
The comments came as Civic Forum distanced itself from any talk of public disorder.
“Civic Forum is against anarchy and chaos and will do anything to ensure a return to order in our country,” said Dienstbier, reading from a prepared statement.
Speaking at a news conference earlier in the day, Politburo member Mohorita admitted that the party had lost control of developments.
“We’re still being dragged by events,” he said. “We’ve got to get hold of the situation to turn it around for the future.”
Party reformists have already launched efforts to assert themselves in a hierarchy that until last week was dominated by hard-liners.
Mohorita indicated that there are moves to force the resignations of many members of the highly conservative Central Committee.
Such action would be required before genuine party reform could begin, analysts believe.
A second alternative, Mohorita said, would be to advance the date of an extraordinary party congress called for late January. A party congress has the power to select a new Central Committee.
New Communist Party leader Karel Urbanek told a group of party activists Tuesday that the party’s future requires an end to its monopoly of power, but he seemed to draw limits on how much power he is willing to cede.
“There are such demands today as the dissolution of the People’s Militia . . . the liquidation of primary party organizations in enterprises, sale of the Communist Party buildings, which we consider unacceptable. . . ,” he said.
Czechoslovak television on Wednesday reported that a party delegation had visited the country’s president, Gustav Husak, and urged him to stay in office. The removal of Husak, who replaced Dubcek as party secretary following the 1968 invasion, is one of the few opposition demands that has not been met.
The fact that Civic Forum did not repeat this demand Wednesday evening led some observers to believe that a deal may have been struck that would allow Husak to step down in a way that would preserve the dignity of the largely ceremonial presidency.