Czechs demand new justice minister's resignation in nationwide challenge to PM Andrej Babiš

The rally from 21th May on Wenceslas square in Prague. Photo by Lucie Šarkadyová, used with permission.

Thousands of people rallied in more than 220 towns and cities in the Czech Republic on Tuesday, May 28, against the controversial appointment of a new minister of justice by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.

Marie Benešová was appointed shortly after the police requested the Public Prosecutor's Office to press fraud charges against Babiš for allegedly using European Union subsidies to build a luxury resort. Benešová used to be an adviser of President Miloš Zeman, an ally of Babiš. The case is known locally as the Stork's Nest affair.

Protesters say Babiš is seeking to interfere with his prosecution. They demand Benešová's resignation as well as new measures to protect the judiciary's independence.

Tuesday's rally was the fifth in a series of demonstrations since Benešová's appointment, and the first that involved multiple countryside cities beyond just Prague. Another demonstration is planned for June 4 in Prague. The association Million Moments for Democracy is the main force spearheading the protests.

Babiš is an agribusiness billionaire who was re-elected in 2017, shortly after the subsidies scandal emerged. He denies any wrongdoing and says demonstrations are part of a political campaign against him. He suggested protesters form a political party of their own if they want to challenge his rule.

During her time as justice adviser, Benešová allegedly prepared a confidential document about the current judicial system in which she supported Babiš interpretation of the subsidies case. PM Babiš has denied the document exists.

Benešová says she intends to roll out judicial reforms that would limit prosecutors’ office term among other changes in the public prosecution system. Protesters fear this is a covert attempt to dismiss the current Supreme Public Prosecutor Pavel Zeman along with the Chief of the High Prosecutor's Office in Prague Lenka Bradáčová, who are both in charge of cases related to the Stork’s Nest affair.

Internet discussions

Online discussions on the subject tend to be heated, and name-calling by both sides is frequent. Government supporters tend to call the protesters “sluníčkář,” which literally means “sunny person” in Czech and implies that they're naive and advocate for unrealistic ideas. Even more often protesters are accused of being “Prague Café”, or “from Prague's coffee shops”, meaning they're intellectuals disconnected from real life, with cushy jobs the fields of culture, media, or nonprofit where they earn a lot of money for doing essentially nothing.

Meanwhile, protesters say the PM advocates are “donuts eaters,” a reference to the fact that Babiš distributes donuts in his electoral campaigns. The implication is that Babiš supporters are humble people who vote in exchange for cheap bribes such as snacks.

One user said the PM is correct in ignoring the protests:

If one should act only according to dissatisfied protesters, then there would be no need of elections. Today it concerns Babiš and Benešová, and if it all works out, the protesters will abolish inconvenient political parties, then courts, people, etc. It would be a disaster.

Another user was satisfied with the PM's response to the protesters:

You don’t have to admire Babiš, but the message to the tens of thousands of demonstrators that they should form their own political party and put their skin in the game must drive mad those ‘sunny people’ thrash.

Another Twitter user suggested that protesters’ jobs are useless to society and that is why they prefer to protest rather than going on strike.

The Prague Café has to demonstrate, because if they strike, what would happen …?

On the opposite side of the spectrum, a Twitter user says Babiš's supporters act out of spite:

In my opinion, the voters of ANO do not know why they vote for Babiš, and they disregard everything bad he does. Indeed, Zeman and Babiš managed to divide the Czech society so that the people who vote for ANO do it just out of spite to the “Prague café that does not work and wants to destroy our country.”

Another citizen emphasized the fact that Babiš owns the most widely read newspapers in the Czech Republic and alleges that he misuses them to promote himself:

In case Babiš’s media claims, once again, that only a few people came to Wenceslas Square, it is not true. It was filled until the tramway track and the adjacent streets were full too. In case Zeman and his fellows claim that the Prague Café was demonstrating, it is not true. The main station and trains were full of demonstrators.

Shortly before the May 23-26 EU Parliament elections, another user said they've spotted a donut-distributing spot by Babiš’ political party ANO:

2 days after one of the biggest demonstrations against Babiš there is a ANO promotion stand at the I. P. Pavlova station distributing donuts. And people take them! And the time goes by…

Despite the anti-government protests, ANO won six out of the 21 seats designated to the Czech Republic in the European Parliament — two more in comparison to the previous elections in 2014.

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