Czech rallies recall Velvet Revolution and decry rising populism

Billionaire election winner Babis and pro-Russian president Zeman alarm many Czechs

People wearing masks march across the medieval Charles Bridge to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Prague, Czech Republic. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

People wearing masks march across the medieval Charles Bridge to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Prague, Czech Republic. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

 

Thousands of Czechs attended rallies and concerts on Friday to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended communist rule and to pledge support for democracy amid fears over rising populism.

Organisers of the so-called Freedom Festival in Prague and at least 20 other Czech towns and cities hoped up to 100,000 people would gather in the capital’s Wenceslas Square on Friday evening to show their continuing support for the liberal values of the Velvet Revolution.

Twenty-eight years ago, the square was the epicentre of peaceful pro-democracy protests that erupted after a police crackdown on a student demonstration and ultimately swept dissident playwright Vaclav Havel into power.

Organisers and many of those attending Friday’s events said this year’s commemoration was particularly important, after parliamentary elections last month were won easily by the populist party of billionaire Andrej Babis and a far-right party came a strong third.

Mr Babis wants to become prime minister despite facing fraud allegations and questions over whether he collaborated with Czechoslovakia’s secret police, and he is supported by the pro-Russian Czech president Milos Zeman, who shares the tycoon’s Eurosceptic and anti-immigration views.

Totalitarian regime

“Every year in November we commemorate the days when our compatriots confronted the totalitarian regime and fought for freedom, democracy and the future of our country,” the organisers of the Freedom Festival wrote in a manifesto.

“But the values upon which our freedom is fundamentally based have often been questioned in recent years. We want to confront the fear and lies that extremists and populists are spreading to deprive us of our freedom.”

Despite cold weather and drizzle, big crowds moved through Prague along major roads that were closed to traffic, and several stages hosted performances and speeches. Police reinforcements were sent to the capital, and at least two people were detained at a small far-right rally.

Mr Babis was reportedly the first politician to visit a monument to the Velvet Revolution in central Prague on Friday, and other party leaders brought candles and flowers throughout the day. Mr Zeman did not attend any public events.

Mr Babis’s pledge to oust a corrupt political elite and run the Czech Republic like a “family business” appealed to many voters, as did his criticism of the European Union and rejection of its plans to resettle refugees around the bloc.

Opponents fear he could use his wealth and media empire to destroy democratic checks and balances, however, particularly if he worked in unison with Mr Zeman, whose populist views and warm relationship with the Kremlin irk many Czechs.

“While being always an optimist, I can however imagine that a populist leadership, represented by the tandem of Zeman and Babis, could gradually weaken democracy in our country, unless the democratically thinking public finds sufficient strength to oppose it,” Ivan Havel, the late Vaclav’s brother, told The Irish Times.

Dr Havel, a computer scientist, said he would use his speech on Wenceslas Square on Friday to urge Czechs “to be alert and to support public activities at the basic level, including non-governmental institutions. Just to act freely in a free public environment.”