PRAGUE - Tens of thousands of people rallied in the Czech capital on Saturday to protest government reforms and austerity cuts in one of the biggest anti-government demonstrations here since the collapse of communism almost 23 years ago.
The protesters from all over the country urged the government to abandon the cuts and resign. They also are demanding early parliamentary elections.
Blowing vuvuzelas and beating drums, the protesters marched to Prague's Wenceslas Square, disrupting downtown traffic.
"The government must go," said Jaroslav Zavadil, head of the country's major umbrella organization of unions, the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions.
"Enough is enough," he told the crowd, which the organizers estimated at more than 100,000. "It's necessary for the government to step down and early elections to be held."
"Resign," the demonstrators chanted back.
The Czech Republic's centre-right government says the budget cuts and reforms of pension and health care plans are needed to bring the budget deficit back below 3 per cent of GDP and maintain market reliability.
Prime Minister Petr Necas said in a statement Saturday he respects the people's right to express their view but defended the measures. "As the prime minister, I feel a great responsibility for our country not to fall into a debt trap."
The protest was organized by major labour unions and non-governmental groups.
Their demand for early elections could be met.
The Czech government's future looks uncertain after several members of Public Affairs, a junior coalition partner, quit last week after its informal chairman, Vit Barta, was convicted of paying bribes.
On Saturday, protesters waved union flags and banners with slogans such as "Stop the government" and "I am ashamed of the government and the president." Some slogans blamed the free-market economic system, such as: "Stupid Capitalism, Stupid Government, Stupid Cuts."
Unions warned the government they were ready to organize more radical protests, including a general strike, if their demands are not met.
"We'll paralyze the country until the government falls," said Bohumir Dufek, another union leader.
Tomas Frejkovsky, 45, travelled to Prague with 200 people from the eastern city of Ostrava.
"I have to take three jobs to make both ends meet," he said. "Ordinary people only suffer from it all."
Saturday's protest was one of the biggest the Czech Republic has seen since communism collapsed in the region in 1989 and it began to adopt capitalism and democracy.