European far-right leaders rally in Prague, face counterprotests

Far-right figureheads including Le Pen and Wilders attempt to boost support before European Parliament elections.

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    About 1,000 people came out in support of the far-right figures in Prague, but were faced with counterdemonstrations [Tim Gosling/Al Jazeera]
    About 1,000 people came out in support of the far-right figures in Prague, but were faced with counterdemonstrations [Tim Gosling/Al Jazeera]

    Prague, Czech Republic - In 1989, up to half a million people filled Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution that deposed the communists.

    Thirty years later, on Thursday, French far-right figurehead Marine le Pen and the Netherlands' Geert Wilders urged Czechs to once more fight "dictatorship". 

    "The whole of Europe remembers the Prague Spring," Le Pen told a crowd of about 1,000 people.

    "Czechs are brave" and should resist European Union efforts to dilute nations and hand them to an oligarchy of civil servants, she claimed.

    The rally was organised by Tomio Okamura, the Czech-Japanese leader of the Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD), the third-largest in the Czech parliament.

    Matteo Salvini, Italy's interior minister, sent a 15-second video message.

    The group wants to harness growing populism and xenophobia across Europe.

    They hope that the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) faction can turn itself from the smallest to the largest group in the European Parliament at elections between May 23 and 26.

    "We are not alone," Okamura told the crowd.

    Le Pen and Wilders were drafted in to boost the SPD's chances in the Czech Republic. The party currently has no MEPs.

    "Such events are planned to show that these are modern nationalists, different from old-style fascist parties, and they can cooperate to achieve power," Miroslav Mares, an expert on "extremism" at Brno's Masaryk University, told Al Jazeera.

    Central and Eastern European countries are seen as promising targets.

    Strong anti-migrant sentiment has put nationalist-populist parties in power across the region. Le Pen will appear at a rally in Slovakia in mid-May.

    Closing Europe's borders is one of ENF's main policy goals.

    The Czech Republic has taken in just 12 asylum seekers under the EU's migrant quotas and Muslims constitute at most around 0.2 percent of the population of 10 million, but political populists have whipped up fear.

    "We need to prevent Islamisation; the destruction of European culture," said Alena, a 32-year-old supermarket worker who travelled 90km from the small city of Hradec Kralove to the capital to attend.

    Voters such as Alena keep the ENF coming back for more.

    Okamura first hosted Le Pen and Wilders at a conference in late 2017, where they praised central and Eastern European countries for refusing the EU's migrant quotas.

    "The Czech opposition to Islamic invasion inspires us," Wilders told the rally in English on Thursday.

    However, the region could struggle to deliver as the far right competes with nationalist and populist mainstream parties.

    Czech President Milos Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babis both rode to power criticising EU migrant policy and Islam. 

    Polls suggest support for the SPD has more than halved since it won 11 percent at national elections in 2017.

    Liberal opponents harbour realistic hopes the party will remain without a Member of the European Parliament or MEP, post-election.

    "Okamura is using his 'guests' to boost his profile. We want to use the opportunity to tell Europe there's another side to Czech society," said Marcela Peknikova from Pulse of Europe, a pro-European citizen's movement.

    The NGO organised one of several counterdemonstrations that sought to drown out the rally using pots and pans, drums and whistles.

    "These parties are exploiting vulnerable people," said Jaroslav, a 26-year-old teacher from Kladno, 25km northwest of Prague. "Okamura is a businessman that trades in fear." 

    The far-right supporters responded with anger, some screaming "Jews!" at the protesters.

    Analysts say the European far right lacks a sense of cooperation; Le Pen and Salvini are already said to be competing for leadership of the ENF. 

    There's also persistent misunderstanding between east and west.

    Central and Eastern European economies are heavily dependent on EU trade and also receive huge development funding. Polls suggest very low support for a "Czexit".

    The SPD's decision to put Ortel, a rock band with neo-Nazi links,on stage on Thursday also illustrates the confusion.

    "It's a risk to the efforts of Le Pen to cultivate a more moderate image," said Mares.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News