Czech PM quits as party leader but remains head of government

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said on Wednesday he would step down as the leader of his Social Democrat party but remain the head of government, a move to shore up his party’s prospects before an October parliamentary election.

FILE PHOTO: Czech Republic Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka speaks during the news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, April 3, 2017. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke/File Photo

The leftist party has slipped in polls further behind its rival and government coalition partner ANO, an anti-corruption movement founded in 2011 by billionaire tycoon Andrej Babis that has drawn voters with its business-like approach to governing.

ANO holds a double-digit margin over the Social Democrats.

The parties, together with the Christian Democrats, came to power together in a center-left coalition in January 2014 and are on course to becoming the first government in 15 years in the central European country to finish out its term.

Despite being the most stable government in recent times and presiding over a growing economy that helped it deliver the first balanced budget in two decades, the Social Democrats have received little credit, dropping in polls and failing to find issues to draw in a wider spectrum of voters.

“If (the party) is to improve its chances before the key elections... it has to undergo deeper changes, so that it would be able to better address people and to mobilize its supporters and members,” Sobotka told a news conference.

“Therefore I proposed a new distribution of responsibilities in the leadership.”

Sobotka, a career politician with the Social Democrats since Communist rule ended in the country in 1989, tapped his more popular and eloquent foreign minister Lubomir Zaoralek to lead the party’s campaign into the Oct. 20-21 general election.

Interior Minister Milan Chovanec will take over duties running the party, according to internal rules. Sobotka’s resignation takes effect on Thursday.

The Czech economy has shown solid growth since Sobotka came to power and the number of unemployed in the country has fallen to the lowest level in the European Union.

The party looked to have come out victors in a cabinet dispute in May that saw the dismissal of Babis.

Sobotka had pushed for Babis’s sacking amid allegations the businessman dodged paying taxes in the past with the use of company bonds and also interfered in a national newspaper he owns while in politics - which Babis denies.

Babis, after weeks of wrangling that pitted him and President Milos Zeman against Sobotka, eventually agreed to his dismissal after picking his successor.

Reporting by Robert Muller; Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Larry King/Mark Heinrich