Hundreds of thousands of Czechs gathered in Prague on Sunday to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš in the biggest protests in the country’s capital since the fall of Communism thirty years ago.
Organisers estimated that at least 250,000 people took part in the demonstration in Letná Park, chanting, cheering, and waving Czech flags and signs about democracy in scenes that echoed rallies held on the same site during 1989’s Velvet Revolution.
The protests are the latest in a series demanding that Mr Babiš steps down amid several fraud and conflict of interest scandals, and come ahead of a no-confidence vote in the prime minister in the Czech parliament next week.
Co-organiser of the protests Benjamin Roll, a student who was yet to be born when the 1989 demonstrations were held, told The Telegraph: “The main difference [from 1989] is that we are not protesting against the system, we are protesting for the system, to protect democracy.
“The message to Babiš is: ‘The citizens are watching, and they care.’”
Many brought children to the protests, which had a peaceful festival feel on a sunny afternoon, with banners reading “Dear EU, don’t feed the oligarch”, “Resign!”, and “We’re not here for the concert”.
People had travelled from across the country to attend the demonstration, including Marie Noemi, 68, who came from Brno, the Czech Republic’s second biggest city.
She also attended the rallies in 1989. “This is more sad, because we thought we had freedom forever,” she said. “Now we know that you have to keep fighting.”
Mr Babiš, who has variously been dubbed the Czech Trump and “Babišconi”, after Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, is a billionaire businessman and one of the richest men in the Czech Republic, whose ANO party sailed to power in 2017 on a populist anti-establishment platform.
But Mr Babiš’s political rise and his time in office have been marked by controversy, including rumours that he was a Communist-era informant for the secret police, which he denies.
In April this year, police recommended that the prime minister be formally charged for fraud over accessing a €2m EU-subsidy a decade ago.
Just after that announcement, the appointment of a new, loyalist Czech justice minister – who some fear could interfere in the prosecution process – sparked the initial round of protests.
This month, Mr Babiš took another hit in the form of leaked preliminary results from an audit by the European Commission which found that he is in conflict of interest over his ongoing business links.
Mr Babiš didn’t respond to requests for comment, but in the past has dismissed the fraud investigation as “politicized” and the EU audit as an “attack on the Czech Republic”, and said he will never resign, disregarding both the protests and a petition with 400,000 signatures also organised by Mr Roll’s A Million Moments for Democracy.
However, alongside the protests, Babiš is now also facing political pressure, with a vote of no-confidence tabled by the five opposition parties in the Czech parliament next week.
Mr Babiš is expected to survive the vote thanks to the – for now – continued support of his government’s coalition partners. And despite the scandals, the 64-year old also remains the Czech Republic’s most popular politician, particularly outside liberal Prague.
Mr Roll acknowledged Babiš’s continued popularity, but added: “The latest polls show he is also seen as the most…” He paused, searching for the English term. “Hated,” supplied a passerby. “Untrustworthy,” concluded Mr Roll.