Since the spring of 2019, Czechs have been protesting in the streets against billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who won power in 2017 on an anti-establishment platform. They say he is compromised by his business interests and may try to meddle in the country’s courts. For his part, Babis said he “doesn’t quite understand” why people are demonstrating. His political position looks secure for now, but protesters are planning more rallies.
1. What are Czechs upset about?
Babis faces potential criminal charges over allegations that a company he once owned illegally obtained about $2 million worth of European Union aid last decade. Additionally, a preliminary European Commission report found him in conflict of interest, saying he has influence over EU funds that his agriculture, media and chemical businesses may receive, even though he has put them in trusts. Babis has repeatedly rejected accusations of misconduct.
2. What set off the demonstrations?
People took to the streets starting in late April after Babis appointed a new justice minister, who activists fear may try to avert a possible court trial for the premier. Babis says the protesters are being misled by his rivals and their unfounded accusations are aimed at forcing him out of politics. On June 23, the largest rally yet filled the streets of Prague with what organizers claimed was 250,000 demonstrators -- the largest since the Velvet Revolution nearly 30 years ago that toppled the country’s communist regime.
3. Who supports Babis?
He may be a pariah in Prague, but Babis remains popular outside of the capital for his promises to improve people’s lives. He is pledging more generous benefits for retirees and public employees, which, coupled with a period of economic stability, could help insulate him from dissatisfaction in the second half of his term. His party is the most popular in the country as a whole, with broad support among voters disillusioned with previous Czech governments, whom they saw as corrupt and incompetent. Record-low unemployment and consistent wage growth are also helping keep his approval high.
4. What about his political backing?
Babis didn’t win an outright parliamentary majority in 2017, but he put together a coalition government with the Social Democrats and with tacit support from the Communist Party. He also enjoys strong backing from President Milos Zeman, a divisive figure who shares Babis’s rejection of Muslim immigrants and his opposition to further EU integration. So far, Babis’s partners in the government show no sign of abandoning him. His cabinet may face a no-confidence vote in parliament in late June, but is expected to survive the test.
5. Could there be early elections?
The Czech Republic has held snap ballots before. But early elections appear unlikely now, because of a risk that many parties -- including the junior coalition partner Social Democrats -- could do worse than they did last time or even miss the 5% threshold required for parliamentary representation. Even if a snap ballot took place now, Babis would likely come out on top.
6. What’s next for the protesters?
Though sporadic events could continue, organizers have announced an official break in protests to gear up for another big rally on November 16, the eve of the 30th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution. The four-month hiatus could take public and media attention off of Babis, although he may face increased pressure again if the prosecutors charge him in the fraud case.
To contact the reporters on this story: Andrea Dudik in Prague at firstname.lastname@example.org;Peter Laca in Prague at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at firstname.lastname@example.org, Andy Reinhardt
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