Tens of thousands of Czechs turned out for a protest gathering on Prague's Wenceslas Square Friday evening and in some 20 towns and cities throughout the Czech Republic to demand early elections and a return to decency in public life. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele was at the Prague demonstration and reports the crowd repeatedly called on the country's prime minister, Milos Zeman, and parliament speaker, Vaclav Klaus, to resign.
Prague, 6 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It was Prague's largest anti-government protest in years with the upper half of Wenceslas Square packed with some 50,000 people.
The atmosphere was unusually calm and dignified with a dose of Czech humor, reminiscent of the peaceful demonstrations ten years ago that brought down Communist rule. Participants represented all age groups and joined in ringing small bells amid chants of "resign." Protesters also held aloft Czech flags and humorous homemade signs calling specifically for Zeman and Klaus to step down.
In an unusual twist lending the rally a solemn air, the gathering began and ended with the singing of a medieval Czech hymn, Saint Wenceslas (Svatovaclavsky chorale), normally reserved for church ceremonies.
The protesters are demanding the end of the "opposition agreement" between Zeman and Klaus that enables Zeman's Social Democrats to run a minority government tolerated by Klaus' Civic Democrats.
The only officeholder to participate was the independent (non-party) Senator, Vaclav Fischer, elected last August in a by-election in which he campaigned against the interests of the two big parties and their pact.
The participants also demanded changes in the leaderships of the country's parliamentary parties and the holding of early parliamentary elections.
Czech theologian Tomas Halik told the crowd it is up to the young generation to find the courage to enter politics.
Another speaker called on participants to use what he termed "intellectual terror" to hold office holders accountable and force them to explain themselves by deluging them in person individually and in groups with queries. His concluding words seemed to sum up the general sentiments of the other speakers and of the crowd.
"Once again there is a situation in which we must overcome the mistrust and depression in politics and extend our hands to each other. Our petition contains the hope that we are still a strong civic society. Thank you."
The organizers said in advance the protests must be non-violent, without the participation of Communists or other extremists, and in the spirit of Christmas.
The organizers of the rally were six former student protest leaders who helped launch Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution ten years ago. They have drawn up a petition entitled, "We thank you, go!" which has been signed by some 135,000 Czechs in the past two weeks.
On the basis of the outcome of Friday's demonstrations in Prague and other cities, the organizers say they will decide whether they will remain a "civic initiative" or transform themselves into a political party.
The petition accuses Zeman and Klaus of being responsible for Czech society's ongoing malaise. The authors accuse the two of having created a stagnant political situation that has frustrated many citizens and led to a doubling of public support for the Communists according to public opinion polls. They also call for putting the country's interests above those of party interests. They call for what they term "an oath of purity," insisting that the decency of every individual is the prerequisite for the moral and spiritual renewal of Czech society.
The petition does not call for the departure of President Vaclav Havel. He in turn has welcomed the petition and spent two hours in discussions with its authors on Tuesday.
After the talks, one of the former students, Martin Mejstrik, said "we cannot throw the president in the same bag with the other politicians." Petition organizer and filmmaker Igor Chaun said "it would be indecent to call for the president to resign in the same breath as we call on Milos Zeman and Vaclav Klaus" to do so.
Havel told RFE/RL last week that the petition, like a recent appeal of intellectuals titled "Impuls 99," are "very good." He said the parties should be happy with these events rather than turn their noses up at them.
Havel says he has "always maintained that political parties are the main instrument of political power and competition for power." But he says that does not mean that politics and even the state belongs only to the parties. He also warns that wherever civic society is disintegrating, political parties are also falling into ruin and becoming sterile. He says those who speak contemptuously of civic institutions -- a pointed reference to Vaclav Klaus -- are "very short-sighted" and "only confirm the justification for civic activities and initiatives."
Havel has been among the very few senior office holders to welcome the students' petition. Another fellow former dissident, Jan Ruml, who for a long time served as interior minister under Klaus before breaking with him two years ago and founding his own party, the Freedom Union (US), announced this week he was leaving politics for good.
Ruml's successor as head of the Freedom Union, Karel Kuhnl, says most members of his opposition party support the student's appeal.
Far more typical have been the comments of those currently in office. Zeman has branded the ex-student organizers "juveniles." Klaus has denounced the campaign as one of "hysteria" calling for a "third way," which he has always opposed. Klaus says their aim is to weaken his party, the ODS, by dividing its members, sympathizers, and voters.