For over forty years, May Day meant only one thing for the people of Prague. The Communist party organised mass parades on Letna Plain, a big open park near the castle, to mark Labour Day. This year, thousands of people once again gathered there for the celebration, but for quite a different reason. For the first time the main parade of the now much diminished Communist Party took place elsewhere in the Czech capital, and around 9000 people attended a rally named "May Day without Communism for Ever" in its place.
Majorettes took to Letna Plain on Monday as thousands attended the annual May Day festivities. But the atmosphere this year was entirely different from any time in the last 60 years. Instead of traditional Communist slogans, festival goers carried banners which read for example "Communism Harms People" and "Decent Man does not Need Communism". This was all part of an event organised by the Confederation of Political Prisoners to change the attitudes of Czechs towards the day. They had managed to book the venue ahead of the Communists, who had to make do with a site at the bottom of the hill.
The gathering was entitled "May Day without Communism for Ever" a parody of the old Communist motto "With the Soviet Union for Ever", and began with the Czech and Slovak national anthems performed by Prague Castle Guard. Later people commemorated the fates of the thousands who were held as political prisoners during Communist times. Olga Sedlackova, a candidate for the Czech European Democrats in the upcoming parliamentary elections, took part in this year's rally. She told Radio Prague's Rob Cameron why she backed the event:
"I am unfortunately old enough to remember that I also had to saty here with my primary school and my secondary school for the first of May parades so I remember it very well myself. I am really glad that someone had the idea and its really the first time we've been able to get them out of here."
But isn't it a little sad in a way? I mean it was a tradition wasn't it. The Communists always came here on the first of May. Isn't it a shame that that tradition is now no more?
"Well, if you remember those times, you don't think it is a shame of course. Really, I am glad they are not here. They have gone to Prague 7 to a different place, but I am really glad that this tradition of Letna Plain is over for them."
Why are you here? The Communists are a spent force after all. They are no longer in government. Indeed they have 20 percent of support among the public and a number of seats in parliament, but there is no danger that the Communists will ever return to power in the Czech Republic.
"Well I am afraid that this is a very optimistic assumption that they will never return because it depends on the voters and people are becoming frustrated a little with the current politicians and with the current political system. I am a little bit scared sometimes that the Communists could come back because their voters come to elections and if other people don't go to elections their position could become even stronger and they are in a way in government because they have very important positions in parliament. They are partly running parliament and that is already dangerous. Under Mr. Paroubek, whom I personally know from the city assembly, I know his way of thinking, and I am afraid that they would be invited to come back."
Although not in its usual location, the Communist rally nevertheless also succeeded in attracting close to 9000 party members and supporters at the Krizik Fountain at Prague's Exhibition Grounds on Monday morning. The parade was led by party chairman Vojtech Filip, and deputy chairman Jiri Dolejs, who was violently beaten last week in what appears to have been a politically motivated assault, also received an enthusiastic welcome.
Despite the continued use of May Day as a political platform, for many it's meaning as a day of love remained. The statue of Karel Hynek Macha, the greatest Czech poet whose poem "Maj" describes the evening of the first of May as a time for lovers, was once again a meeting place for young couples kissing beneath a blossoming tree on the Petrin hill. And it is this significance which is perhaps the most timeless tradition of all.
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