Biggest Rally Since Communism Tests Czech Billionaire Leader
(Bloomberg) -- Angered by the political gains made by populists across Europe, Mikulas Minar put a pause on his theology studies two years ago to pick an uneven fight with his country’s most powerful man.
Joining a wave of anti-government outrage that has swept the European Union’s ex-communist eastern wing, the 26-year-old has since mounted the Czech Republic’s biggest demonstrations since the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
A massive crowd -- Minar estimated at least 120,000 -- gathered Tuesday at Prague’s Wenceslas Square, the site of rallies that toppled communism, to step up pressure on billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis. They say he’s unfit for office because he’s run afoul of the EU’s executive over aid funds and is facing potential criminal fraud charges at home.
Those are predicaments Minar says threaten the rule of law in a way similar to events in Hungary and Poland, where ruling parties have drawn censure from the EU for undermining democratic norms. Babis has rejected all of the accusations and has denounced the protests as a political “campaign” against him.
“We can’t pretend that it’s normal when the prime minister of our country is a person with such conflicts of interest,” Minar told the crowd. “We demand his resignation.”
Read More: New Czech Justice Chief Faces Ire Over Fraud Probe Into Premier
The protests are building at a sensitive time for Babis, the country’s second-richest man and most popular politician. His ANO party scored a weaker-than-expected victory in last month’s European Parliament ballot and his popularity, while still dominant, slipped last month.
But his biggest two challenges are tied to the web of links between the media-agriculture-fertilizer conglomerate that he founded and EU subsidies.
In the first, a preliminary report from the European Commission found him in conflict of interest because, despite having put his business empire in trusts, he has influence over EU funds they may receive. Babis slammed the commission’s draft and called it an attempt to destabilize the country on Tuesday.
“This audit is very dubious,” Babis told lawmakers. “I consider it an attack on the Czech Republic.”
At home, Babis is facing potential criminal charges over allegations that a company he once owned illegally obtained about $2 million worth of EU aid last decade. A day after police recommended prosecutors put him on trial, the justice minister quit. Babis replaced him with an ally who, as a lawmaker, refused to back a motion stripping the premier of immunity from prosecution two years ago.
Unlike the leaders of Poland and Hungary and Romania, where ruling party leader Liviu Dragnea was jailed last week for corruption, Babis has steered clear of meddling with the judiciary.
But protesters say he crossed a line by naming Marie Benesova, the new justice minister, because they fear she can protect him from criminal charges as she oversees prosecutors. Babis has rejected the idea, saying his rivals fabricated the accusations to hurt his political career.
Benesova has suggested that the investigation against her boss may have been commissioned by his opponents but said she won’t change the chief prosecutor.
Babis has vowed to stay in his job even if he is charged, and any trial could take years. His junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, aren’t planning to abandon him either, meaning there’s little immediate threat to his minority government.
Minar said that even though Babis may stay in power until 2021 elections, the protests have already had an effect.
“So many people have joined us, even before any meddling with democratic structures,” he said. “So if any interference was to come, there would be many more people in the streets.”
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