Prague, Czech Republic – Massive crowds have rallied in Prague calling for Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ resignation over corruption allegations.
The protest on Sunday drew more than 250,000 people, according to organisers, making it the largest show of public anger since the 1989 Velvet Revolution which brought down Communism in the Eastern European country.
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Tens of thousands of people from across the country travelled to the Czech Republic’s capital, Prague, straining transport systems, to fill the vast Letna Plain on the edge of the city’s centre.
They waved Czech and European Union flags and chanted “Resign” and “We’ve had enough”.
It was the fifth mass protest in Prague since April when police recommended the billionaire prime minister face fraud charges over his alleged misuse of an EU subsidy more than a decade ago. A day after the charges against Babis were forwarded to the prosecutor’s office, the government nominated a new justice minister, prompting fears she might meddle in the case against the prime minister.
Mikulas Minar, chairman of the Milion Chvilek group organising the protest, warned Marie Benesova’s appointment was a threat to judicial independence and democracy in the Czech Republic.
“People understand the situation is now serious,” the 26-year-old said.
A spokeswoman for the prime minister denounced Sunday’s protests, saying they were based on false claims. She stressed that Benesova has not interfered in the case against the prime minister
Babis, who rode to power promising to clean up a corrupt political system, claims the allegations against him are “fake news” cooked up by the political elite he replaced. The politician – who has interests in media, food and chemicals – has remained defiant in the face of calls for his resignation.
But protests against him have grown as allegations against him multiplied.
In late May, media reports said the preliminary results of an EU audit had found Babis in breach of conflict-of-interest rules regarding EU funding to Agrofert, the agrochemicals conglomerate Babis had founded and put into a trust before becoming prime minister in 2017.
As a result, the Czech Republic could have to repay $19.8m of funding, the leaked audit said.
Babis has denied those findings, dismissing the auditors as incompetent.
His ANO party, which leads a minority-governing coalition, maintains a robust 30 percent approval rating in opinion polls despite the scandal engulfing Babis. The figure is double that of their nearest political rivals.
Daniel Prokop, a sociologist for the Median pollster, estimated 20 percent of Czechs believe the allegations are part of a conspiracy against Babis. Another 10 percent said they were happy with Ano’s policies boosting pensions and public sector salaries. The latter believed all politicians were corrupt.
One 52-year-old supporter of the prime minister shrugged when asked about the scandal. “Babis gets things done,” said Frantisek from Kladno, 25km northwest of Prague.
However, Jakub Michalek of the opposition Pirate Party said the fraud allegations have rattled the prime minister. “Babis has become highly emotional and unstable in his decisions and speeches,” he claimed.
The Pirate Party has teamed up with four other opposition parties to trigger a motion of no-confidence in the government. However, the bid is likely to fail as the parties hold 70 of the 200 seats in parliament.
ANO has 78 seats and is likely to also win the backing of the communist KSCM and far-right SPD parties, which together command 37 votes.
The two parties previously derailed an attempt to unseat the prime minister in November.
Analysts say Babis was likely to ride out the protests, which will recede over the summer holiday season,
However, autumn could prove difficult for the prime minister, with the EU audit set to be finalised and a decision from the state prosecutor on the fraud charges due in the meantime.
Milion Chvilek said it was already preparing to resume battle, and hoped up to 500,000 people would turn out for a protest on November 16, the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
“Babis is not the cause but the symptom of long-standing problems of corruption and lack of trust in the Czech political system,” states Professor Vladimira Dvorakova at the University of Economics in Prague.