Mogul Czech PM likely to survive mass protests, for now

Prague (AFP) –


Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis will likely stay in power for the moment, analysts said Monday, despite mass protests demanding he quit over alleged graft and a no-confidence vote due in parliament.

More than 250,000 people rallied in the capital Prague Sunday demanding the billionaire Babis quit over the controversy surrounding his business dealings.

It was the biggest protest the EU and NATO member of 10.6 million people has seen since the fall of Communism in 1989, with mobile operator T-Mobile putting Sunday's attendance at 283,000.

Czech police charged the 64-year-old mogul last year in connection with a two-million-euro ($2.25 million) EU subsidy scam.

An audit by the European Commission released in June ruled that he had a conflict of interest as a politician and entrepreneur.

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

"Babis will survive," independent political analyst Jiri Pehe told AFP on Monday. "The question is how long.

"The rallies fundamentally change the social dynamics in the country. With time, they will change the political dynamics as well," he added, pointing out that younger people made up most of the protesters.

"They have realised that the post-Communist generation of politicians -- including Babis and President (Milos) Zeman -- are stealing their future," Pehe said of head of state Zeman, a former communist, who is known for his fondness of Russia and China.

- Communist support -

Babis, the second wealthiest Czech according to Forbes, created the populist ANO movement that heads a minority coalition with the Social Democrats. The coalition survives thanks to the tacit support of the Communists.

He is likely to survive Wednesday's no-confidence vote brought by the opposition this month following the preliminary EU report on his conflict of interest.

ANO won the 2017 general election campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket, but Babis struggled for a year to build a viable coalition.

The protesters, some who travelled to Prague from across the country, also shun Babis for his alleged past as a Communist secret police agent in the 1980s.

The Slovak-born Babis, 64, who made his fortune as the founder and owner of the Agrofert food, chemicals and media holding, has denied all the allegations.

He said on Sunday he did not understand the protests, dismissing them as "a colourful march of people who talked about an independent judiciary but sent me straight to prison".

"One feels that the more money you pump in, the more upset the people are. This is a weird situation," Babis said on Monday morning referring to increased social spending.

Despite the allegations, ANO -- described by its critics as a one-man party -- enjoys 30-percent support in the opinion polls and won May's European Parliament elections.

- Conflict of interest -

The protests are "a problem for Babis tarnishing his public image, but won't make him step down," political analyst Tomas Lebeda told the Czech news agency CTK.

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

The organisers, who fear Benesova was appointed to clear Babis of his charges, drew about 100,000 protesters to Prague in early June.

"The dynamics against Babis are merciless -- he is betting on older, weary voters, but the question is how long he can face this energy and self-confidence of the protesters," said Pehe.

"The rallies will also affect the Social Democrats and maybe even the Communists -- they will realise they are increasingly seen as those helping Babis rule despite his charges and a huge conflict of interest."

"They (Social Democrats, Communists) may fail to make it to the parliament in the next general election," Pehe added, predicting "panic" in the two parties.

Protest organisers announced the next anti-Babis rally for November 16, a day before the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that toppled Communism in Czechoslovakia after four decades.