PRAGUE: Huge crowds flooded central Prague on Sunday demanding Prime Minister Andrej Babis step down over allegations of graft in a protest that organizers 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 organizing the protest, as it got underway.
Police told AFP they would keep their estimate of the size of the crowd “for internal use,” but mobile operator T-Mobile said on its website its estimate based on network data was “over 258,000” people.
“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, fooling people who trust him and getting away with it,” added Stiburkova, who like many protesters, traveled to Prague for the event.
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.
“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.
Minar announced the next protest rally for November 16, a day before the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that brought Communism down.
But he said protests might also be held earlier if needed.
Two rallies with more than 500,000 people each were held on the Letna plain on a hill near the Prague Castle during the Velvet Revolution that propelled dissident playwright Vaclav Havel to the Czechoslovak presidential seat.
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 organizers, 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.
Babis told the Czech news agency CTK on Sunday that he “absolutely disagreed” with allegations that he was tampering with the independence of the Czech judicial system.