Czech PM Sobotka quits as Social Democrats party chief

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Prague (AFP)

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said Wednesday he was quitting as head of the Social Democrats, whose popularity is low four months ahead of a general election.

A recent poll showed his leftist party trailing its main rival, the centrist ANO movement of billionaire Andrej Babis, by around 20 percentage points ahead of the October 20-21 election.

"I'll quit the post of party chairman as of tomorrow," the 45-year-old Sobotka told reporters in Prague, adding he would stay on as prime minister until the election.

Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek, 60, will be the party's new candidate for prime minister, Sobotka said.

Interior Minister Milan Chovanec will take over as party leader until the next its congress, expected after the election.

"The Social Democrats have never been a one-man party. I believe the personnel changes will help boost its position," said Sobotka.

But Babis said the Social Democrats were "desperate" and accused Sobotka of opting for "a cowardly retreat from the battlefield" ahead of the elections.

Independent political analyst Jiri Pehe said Sobotka's withdrawal would "puzzle voters", deeming it a risk that may not help his party muster support.

The Social Democrats, ANO and the small centrist Christian Democrats formed a three-party coalition government after elections in 2013.

A May poll by the Kantar TNS agency for the public Czech Television pegged voter support for the Social Democrats at 10 percent, behind the Communists, the right-wing Civic Democrats and ANO, which led the ratings with 31-percent support.

Lawyer-turned-politician Sobotka served as finance minister from 2002-2006 and has led the Social Democrats since 2011.

The party's ratings suffered after a crisis in May, amid chaotic political manoeuvering by Sobotka aimed at ousting Babis, his finance minister, over questionable business dealings.

Sobotka's moves were widely perceived as an attempt to undermine the ANO's popularity.

The two-week-long crisis ended with Babis pushed out of government, but opinion polls show that Sobotka has lost more supporters than the farming and chemicals tycoon.

The Czech economy has recovered from dips in 2012 and 2013 to enjoy stable economic growth which reached 2.4 percent last year.

The central bank expects growth to accelerate to 2.9 percent this year in the EU and NATO member of 10.6 million people that has yet to join the eurozone.