Prague, Czech Republic – Fifty-thousand people filled Wenceslas Square on Tuesday to protest what they say is an attack on judicial independence that threatens to send the country down a similar route with its internationally pilloried neighbours.
The event marked a fourth week of growing demonstrations since the sudden appointment of Marie Benesova as justice minister in April. Her nomination came one day after investigators recommended Prime Minister Andrej Babis should face criminal charges for European Union subsidies fraud.
“I think they’ve crossed the line,” Mikulas Minar, one of the student founders of the Million Moments for Democracy (Milion Chvilek), the NGO organising the protests, told Al Jazeera when asked why the demonstrations have picked up such momentum so quickly.
“Complaints about Babis have been common, but now people are afraid it’s no longer a game but a serious assault on democracy,” added fellow activist Benjamin Roll.
On the square that hosted the Velvet Revolution, the 1989 demonstrations that brought down the communist regime, the crowd waved Czech and EU flags and sent up deafening whistles every time Babis’ sins were mentioned in speeches.
They told the prime minister: “We’ve had enough!” as they demanded “judicial independence”, “honest government”, and Benesova’s dismissal.
Milion Chvilek fears the new justice minister will derail the case against Babis, and is calling for guarantees that supreme state prosecutor Pavel Zeman, who is now deciding whether to press charges, will not be replaced.
Babis, who put his agricultural and chemicals conglomerate Agrofert into a trust before becoming government leader in 2017, rejects the conclusions of the Czech police and the EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF that he hid ownership of a leisure resort named Storks Nest in order to qualify for a two million euros small business grant from the EU.
The populist billionaire insists the case is part of a plot by the country’s “elite” to force him from politics. He remains defiant in the face of the demonstrations.
“People have the right to protest,” government spokesperson Jana Adamcova told Al Jazeera. “But the prime minister was democratically elected and has the right to choose whichever ministers he wants.”
However, there are worries that it may not be Babis calling all the shots.
Although his anti-establishment Ano party won elections in 2017 on the back of promises to reject migrants and stamp out corruption, mainstream political parties have refused to cooperate, citing the potential charges. That has left Babis leading a minority government that relies on informal support from hardline parties on the left and right.
Many claim this support is orchestrated by President Milos Zeman, a controversial populist with links to Russia and China, under a suspected power-pact with the prime minister. However, as Babis is weakened by scandals, so Zeman’s leverage grows.
Benesova is a long-time confidante of the president, and her appointment has raised concern that Czech democracy could be threatened along the same lines as in some Central European neighbours.
“There are precedents in Hungary and Poland showing that the destruction of democracy begins with attacks on judicial independence,” said Vratislav, a 34-year-old bank worker from Prague holding a sign featuring Babis behind bars.
However, Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and an adviser to former president Vaclav Havel, said the Czech political system has more robust defences against authoritarian takeover than its regional peers.
“Czech institutions are much stronger and the political system means Babis has far less leverage than [Hungary and Poland’s leaders] Orban or Kaczynski,” Pehe told Al Jazeera.
“We will not have a single party government that can alter the constitution in this country.”
Minar, 26, said the protests have already averted the worst-case scenario by serving the government a warning that it’s being closely watched. Milion Chvilek’s long-term aim, he added, is to help Czechs become more politically engaged in order to “avoid going the way of our neighbours”.