Czech anti-govt protest urging PM Andrej Babiš to resign biggest since Velvet Revolution

Photo: ČTK/Vít Černý

Over a quarter million people rallied on Sunday afternoon at Prague’s Letná Plain to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš over allegations of fraud and conflicts of interest concerning EU funds. It was the biggest public protest since the 1989 Velvet Revolution which overthrew Communism and comes days ahead of a no-confidence vote in his government.

Photo: ČTK/Vít Černý

“We’ve had enough!” chanted the protestors, holding banners accusing the prime minister of undermining the rule of law while milking Brussels and Czech taxpayers to line his own pockets.

The Slovak-born billionaire, who came to power on a pledge to fight corruption, has been dogged by accusations that a decade ago he illegally obtained 2 million euros in EU subsidies to develop his Stork Nest complex and continues to serve his own business interests, despite placing them in a trust.

The first major anti-Babiš protests, organised by university students under Million Moments for Democracy banner, erupted this April. The justice minister had stepped down after police recommended the prime minister face fraud charges over the Stork Nest. The next day, he named Marie Benešová, who critics fear is shielding him from prosecution.

But already last February the student movement had begun a petition aiming to force Mr. Babiš’s resignation on the grounds that he is listed as an agent of the communist-era secret police, the StB.

Mikuláš Minář, photo: Martina Schneibergová
In his opening remarks at Sunday’s rally, Million Moments for Democracy chairman Mikuláš Minář summarised their concerns.

“It is unacceptable to have as prime minister a person under criminal investigation, a former agent of the StB, an oligarch who controls much of the media and collects hundreds of millions of crowns in subsidies – also from the pockets of us taxpayers. We cannot allow this to become normal! We demand the resignation of Andrej Babiš!”

The demonstrations have grown steadily since April, with turnout more than doubling after a leaked European Commission draft report found Mr Babiš in conflict of interests over EU subsidies worth 17.5 million euros, which may have to be returned to Brussels.

The prime minister rejects all these accusations, maintaining he will ultimately be exonerated. Meanwhile, he says he won’t step down because of street protests, which he said on Monday were misguided.

“The Czech Republic has never had it so good. Never! We are among the safest countries… And how much money has our government pumped into the economy, increasing wages, into investments, science, research and development, social services? One has the feeling that the more money we pump in, the more people are dissatisfied. So it’s an odd situation.”

Despite the leaked EU draft report, national polls show support for Mr. Babiš’s ANO party support holding steady at around 28 percent. His minority coalition government seems certain to survive a no-confidence vote this Wednesday, thanks to the Communists’ support.

Photo: ČTK/Ondřej Deml
But Million Moments for Democracy says it will continue to hold protests until he and justice minister Marie Benešová resign, acknowledging it will be a long battle. Their next rally at Letná Plain is set for 16 November, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

Even if the demonstrations don’t result in Mr. Babiš’s resignation, they are still worthwhile, a 48-year-old protestor from north Bohemia told Radio Prague:

“Sooner or later, Babiš will leave and all the old structures of the communists and StB will disappear. So we will succeed. Definitely.”