By Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas accused opposition Social Democrats on Monday of trying to cozy up to the Communists ahead of polls next year by seeking to suppress secret police files that could embarrass the party that ruled for 40 years.
The row showed how the central European EU country is still struggling with the legacy of four decades of communism, just as recession and dissatisfaction with mainstream parties raise support for the Communists who are shaking off the pariah status that has dogged them since they were ousted from power in 1989.
Last week, the governing board of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes replaced the body's director, Daniel Herman, saying he failed as a manager.
The decision came after the board's composition was changed by the upper house of parliament, the Senate, controlled since October by the center-left opposition Social Democrats.
The dismissal fast became a top political issue.
The new director found many employees had taken the day off when she came to work the first day, and the entire 15-member expert board that included several professors from U.S. universities had resigned.
Prime Minister Necas, head of the center-right Civic Democrats who look set to lose the lower house election next year, said the Social Democrats were trying to curry favor with the Communists by making the changes.
"This is about the future cooperation of the Social Democrats and the Communists," Necas said on Monday, calling the director's replacement a "coup".
The Communist Party was not banned after it lost power, but it has never since been invited to be part of any ruling coalition because of its totalitarian past. However, the Social Democrats have said they may ask the Communists for informal support for a minority cabinet after the 2014 election.
Part of the institute is an archive of communist secret police files. Necas said this was what the left wanted to get its hands on, because it could prevent revelations about present-day Communists who may have been informers or held positions within the security apparatus before 1989.
The board, as well as the Social Democrats, denied they had any intention of harming the institute's research.
"The right wing relies on anti-communism almost as the last emergency brake to avoid an election defeat," Social Democrat leader Bohuslav Sobotka wrote in a commentary. "Therefore we have this hysteria."
The leftists have never warmed up to the institute, which was set up by a right-wing parliament in 2007.
Michal Uhl, one of the new board members, said in a newspaper interview the institute should widen its scope from studying crimes to studying the entire communist society, including its positive aspects such as accessible healthcare.
"Only understanding the entire society will allow us to learn from the past," he said in the weekly Respekt.
Rudolf Kucera, a political scientist at the Charles University, said in a commentary the left could not accept that the institute's mandate listed communism as totalitarian regime along with Nazism, and that it wanted to dictate how recent history should be understood.
"That is a deep lack of understanding of the principle of democracy," he said.
(Editing by Jon Hemming)