Czech Republic: Hundreds Of Thousands Rally Against Billionaire PM

An estimated quarter of a million Czechs protested in Prague yesterday against the country’s Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. A self-styled and charismatic billionaire who entered politics in 2011 to sweep it clean of corruption is himself facing allegations of fraud and conflict of interest.

Andrej Babiš campaigning during EU elections.

Andrej Babiš / Facebook

Andrej Babiš owns several media outlets in the country as well as more than 250 food and chemical companies. His net wealth is estimated to be worth $3.8 billion and he is often compared by the press to Donald Trump and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.

Yesterday’s protest was the high point of a series of demonstrations that were prompted in April by the suspicious resignation of the then Justice Minister Jan Kněžínek. His resignation was announced only one day after the police recommended that criminal charges be pressed against Babiš in connection with the alleged abuse of EU funds.

While Prime Minister Babiš has systematically denied any wrongdoing, claiming the allegations are politically motivated, the protesters and the opposition are concerned about the potential political interference in the country’s justice system.

Similarly and at the same time, the European Commission has launched its own investigation into the potential conflict of interest over the EU subsidies previously paid to Babiš’s businesses. Prior to becoming the Prime Minister, he had put his companies into trusts but a leaked draft version of the EU Commission’s report concluded that despite the action taken, the Czech Republic might have to repay the money back.

The Sunday’s protest was the biggest of its kind in the Czech Republic since the overthrow of the former regime in 1989. The location of the demonstration, the Letná Park in Prague, was a symbolic place given that three decades ago it held the largest rally against the Communist ruling elites.

Live coverage of the protests in Prague.

Marek Šulik / Twitter

Andrej Babiš had previously rejected the idea that his government’s policies and composition should be determined by the protests in the streets. But while questioning the purpose and substance of the protests, he understands that people have the right to protest.

Babiš is a pragmatic politician void of strong ideological underpinnings and he is aware that the current political situation in the country is still tilted to his favour. His party, ANO, remains highly popular, polling at around 25% nationally, which makes it the largest party in the country. The only person who can realistically sink his political career at this stage is himself.

ANO’s coalition partner, the Social Democrats, significantly weakened by the last European elections, are unlikely to pull the rug from underneath their own access to power. Unless new developments are brought to light, making the position of the junior coalition partner untenable vis-à-vis its electorate, Babiš’s government will survive.

But perhaps more importantly, the reason why the mass protests are unlikely to live up to expectations has to do with the state of the Czech opposition. While the opposition parties in the Parliament have called a vote of no confidence for Wednesday, they do not have the sufficient numbers within their ranks to defeat the government.

Perceived as disunited and failing to offer an alternative to Babiš’s populist policies, the opposition will continue to do what it does best: to oppose Babiš; nothing more and nothing less. And without the political vehicle to implement the demanded change, the mass protests – while impressive in size – will achieve little in substance. Furthermore, with the upcoming summer break and the long wait until the next protest announced for November, the public demonstrations are expected to lose their momentum. 

Unlike in Slovakia where the mass demonstrations of last year have given rise to new politicians willing to actively change politics for the better, the public in the Czech Republic is yet to fully accept that in a democratic system the policy heavy lifting is done through the country’s democratic institutions. To that end, anyone with the ambition of delivering a meaningful change can only do so if they are prepared to move from opposing to proposing and from proposing to implementing.

I work in EU affairs in Brussels, Belgium. Over the course of my career, I have worked in numerous fields of interest including media, consumer rights, and politics. I w...