Huge Czech protest marking Velvet Revolution demands PM quit

AFP Prague, Czech Republic Nov 17, 2019, 07.53 AM(IST)

People hold placards during a demonstration against Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis on the eve of the Velvet Revolution anniversary Photograph:( AFP )

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Prime Minister Andrej Babis faces a string of graft allegations and a conflict-of-interest probe by the European Commission centred on Agrofert, his sprawling farming, media and chemicals holding. 

Around a quarter-million Czechs flooded central Prague on Saturday to mark 30 years since the Velvet Revolution toppled communism in then-Czechoslovakia, with protesters demanding that billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis quit over allegations of graft.

Some demonstrators waved flags or brandished banners calling for Babis to step down and chanted "Shame!" and "Resign!". 

The CTK Czech news agency quoted Interior Minister Jan Hamacek as saying some 250,000 people had rallied at Letna park, the site of some of the biggest 1989 rallies --  matching a similar protest in June.

It came on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which saw unprecedented protests and a general strike end four decades of Soviet-imposed totalitarianism in the former Czechoslovakia.

A former communist, the populist Babis faces a string of graft allegations and a conflict-of-interest probe by the European Commission centred on Agrofert, his sprawling farming, media and chemicals holding. 

Babis has denied any wrongdoing and his ANO (YES) party still tops opinion polls with around 30 per cent support despite the controversy.

He is also tagged as an agent in secret police files from the 1980s, something he has vociferously denied.

'Democracy in danger'? 

People living in a house overlooking the rally strung a banner saying "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred", the motto of former Czech President Vaclav Havel, a former anti-communist dissident playwright.

Kristyna Kovarova, a 20-year-old student from the southern village of Malenice, said she had come "to fight for democracy."

"I think democracy is in danger because there are many people trying to twist it and set their own rules, but that's not right," she told AFP.

"I really don't like our prime minister's lies," said protester Josef Plandor, who travelled from the eastern village of Zasova.

"His huge conflict of interest, his lies, fraud, there's too much of that. He's not an honest man," said the 43-year-old forestry worker, adding that he was "sure" Babis would never quit.

The Million Moments for Democracy movement, which organised the protest, called on Babis to either resolve his conflict of interest or step down.

The 65-year-old Slovak-born politician was charged last year in connection with a two million euro ($2.25 million) EU subsidy scam, but in September a Prague prosecutor cleared him.

Student strike 

Babis, the fifth wealthiest Czech according to Forbes, leads the centrist populist ANO movement in a minority coalition government with the left-wing Social Democrats, propped up by the Communist Party in parliament.

ANO took office after winning the 2017 general election campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket in the EU and NATO country of 10.6 million plagued by graft.

On November 17, 1989, Communist police brutally crushed a students' march, sparking a student strike and the creation of an opposition movement which then negotiated the Communist Party's departure from politics.

In late December 1989, Havel, then the opposition leader, was elected president of Czechoslovakia, which went on to peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

The neighbours joined NATO and the EU, with Bratislava also joining the eurozone in 2009.