Czechs Say Billionaire Leader Must Resign in Mass Protests

Peter Laca

(Bloomberg) -- Hundreds of thousands of Czechs thronged the streets of Prague in one of the largest anti-government protests in the country since the fall of communism, calling on their billionaire prime minister to step down.

The European Union member’s demonstrations came on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and are part of a global wave of discontent triggered by corruption and abuses of human rights and the rule of law.

But unlike the unrest that has turned lethal and shot down rulers from Lebanon to Bolivia, the Czech protest is unlikely to loosen Premier Andrej Babis’s grip on power. Instead it will most likely resemble the vocal yet inconsequential actions by opposition parties in regional peers Poland and Hungary, where ruling populists have held on to power despite accusations of democratic backsliding.

Waving banners saying “Rule of law” and “We won’t give up freedom,” protesters from across the country poured into a plain in the shadow of Prague Castle, the site of anti-communist rallies that toppled the Soviet-backed dictatorship. The police estimated the crowd at about 200,000 people, a smaller number than the 280,000 protesters who attended the previous rally in June, which was the biggest demonstration since 1989.

Organizers accuse Babis of a conflict of interest because he influences policies that affect the agriculture, media and chemicals empire that he founded. They pledged to continue with demonstrations until he steps down or sells the business, which he placed in trusts before becoming the premier.

“We aren’t protesting against the result of the election, we are protesting against the abuse of power by those who won the election,” Benjamin Roll, one of the organizers, told the crowd.

Babis has repeatedly rejected the allegations, even as the EU’s executive arm probes whether he’s maintained ties to the conglomerate while helping to decide on the bloc’s budget.

The billionaire is the most popular leader by far in the country of 10.6 million, having waged an eight-year campaign at the head of an anti-establishment movement to wrest power from traditional parties that he accuses of corruption and incompetence.

His message has resonated with voters, helped by policies to increase spending on pensioners and state employees, plans to build more highways and a staunch anti-migrant stance. The backing for his ANO party rose to 34% last month, more than twice as high as the nearest competitor, after the prosecutor decided against charging him for allegations that he misused EU funds.

(Updates with crowd estimate in fourth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Krystof Chamonikolas.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Laca in Prague at placa@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net, Michael Winfrey, James Amott

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