Czechs demand PM quit in largest protest since communism

AFP , Sunday 23 Jun 2019

Protest rally in Prague
People attend a protest rally demanding the resignation of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis in Prague, Czech Republic, June 23, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

Huge crowds flooded central Prague on Sunday demanding Prime Minister Andrej Babis step down over allegations of graft in a protest that organisers and local media claim drew around 250,000 people, making it the largest since the fall of communism in 1989.

The 64-year-old billionaire was charged last year in connection with a two million euro ($2.25 million) EU subsidy scam, while an audit by the European Commission ruled that he has a conflict of interest as a politician and entrepreneur.

The Czech government said earlier this month there were "errors" in the audit from Brussels and Babis has refused to budge.

"Judging from the aerial photos, it looks like we're about 250,000. We'll see how many more people will still arrive," said Mikulas Minar, head of Million Moments for Democracy, the NGO organising the protest, as it got underway.

Police estimates of the size of the crowd were not immediately available.

"We're fed up with what Babis is doing, how he manages the country," Mila Stiburkova, a 39-year-old sales manager from the central Czech town of Sazava, told AFP.

"We don't like him pocketing money and fooling people who trust him," added Stiburkova, who like many protesters, travelled to Prague for the event.

Country Plagued With Graft 

Babis, the second wealthiest Czech according to Forbes, leads the centrist populist ANO movement, which, despite the controversy, won May's elections to the European Parliament.

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

It teamed up with the leftwing Social Democrats to form a minority coalition with tacit backing from the Communists for a parliamentary majority.

Babis, a former Communist, is the first politician since the 1989 fall of Communism in former Czechoslovakia to let the Communists have a role in government.

The Slovak-born 64-year-old is facing charges over EU subsidy fraud after allegedly taking his farm out of his sprawling Agrofert holding to make it eligible for an EU subsidy.

The EU is probing his dual role as a politician and entrepreneur, and Babis also faces allegations that he served as a secret Communist police agent in the 1980s.

Despite the allegations, which Babis fervently denies, ANO -- described as a one-man party by critics -- enjoys a steady 30-percent voter support in opinion polls.

'Expression Of Democracy' 

"I don't understand how this man (Babis) can go on. His political ambitions are in conflict of interest with everything. He's abusing all subsidy and incentive systems, tax reliefs," Martin Peroutka, a 45-year-old businessman from the northern town of Usti nad Labem, told AFP.

"The protests should continue, it's an expression of democracy," he added.

Sunday's rally is the latest in a series of protests against Babis and new Justice Minister Marie Benesova, which started as Benesova took office in April.

The organisers, who fear Benesova was appointed to clear Babis of his charges, brought about 100,000 protesters to Prague's central Wenceslas Square in early June as the protests gradually increased.

Mass protests in neighbouring Slovakia over the February 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak who was investigating high-level graft brought down the government of leftist populist Robert Fico.

On its Facebook page, the Million Moments for Democracy group said Babis's "multiple conflicts of interest" were unacceptable.

Besides the resignation of Babis and Benesova, the group also wants Agrofert to return all EU subsidies it received while Babis was involved in the alleged conflict of interest.

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