Czech prime minister reshuffles ministers as party ratings suffer

November 11, 2016 10:02 AM EST

Prime Minister of the Czech Republic Bohuslav Sobotka arrives to the meeting of heads of government Central and Eastern European countries and China in Riga, Latvia, November 5, 2016. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins


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By Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said on Friday he would replace two of his ministers in a cabinet reshuffle triggered by a poor showing in regional elections last month.

Sobotka's center-left Social Democrats came second, behind their coalition partner, ANO, a protest movement headed by Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman and now finance minister, who has capitalized on voters' distrust in traditional parties.

"The voters gave the Social Democrats a clear message we need to change," Sobotka told reporters as he announced he planned to replace Health Minister Svatopluk Nemecek with Miloslav Ludvik, head of a large Prague hospital.

Jiri Dienstbier, minister without portfolio in charge of human rights and legislation, will be replaced by Jan Chvojka, a lower house representative, he said. The reshuffle will be put to the president for his consent.

Sobotka faces a party congress in March ahead of general election in October, with rising concerns inside the party about low ratings despite a budget surplus, unemployment at an eight-year low of 5 percent and second-quarter economic growth of 2.6 percent.

Three opinion polls since the regional election showed his pro-European party almost 15 percentage points behind Babis's ANO and Sobotka acknowledged the party leadership faced a "tough fight" for a new mandate at its congress.

Sobotka has said he aims to give the party a more modern feel that would attract liberal urban voters in addition to the party's blue-collar and more conservative base. But that strategy seemed to suffer with the dismissal of Dienstbier, representing the party's younger and progressive wing.

But as he was only able to reshuffle ministries held by his own party his options were limited. ANO and the third coalition partner, the centrist Christian Democrats, have refused to change any of their ministers.

Sobotka has pledged to stand up more visibly to Babis -- whose company is the largest private employer in the country with interests in media, healthcare, chemicals and farming -- and his attacks on coalition partners.

Chvojka, who will replace Dienstbier, could help with that. He co-authored a legal amendment that would ban Babis, as a minister, from owning media and his firms from winning public contracts.

The amendment won wide support in the lower house and is awaiting the final vote after minor changes by the upper house.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)



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