Czech PM delays tendering resignation until mid-May

The business dealings of billionaire Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis have sparked a storm, culminating in the planned resignation of the prime minister

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has postponed handing over his resignation to the president until later this month in a bid to hammer out a deal that would allow his three-party coalition to survive without him at the helm.

Sobotka had announced Tuesday he was standing down amid a high-stakes row with his billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis, a highly popular centrist rival tipped to win elections later this year.

Sobotka, the 45-year-old leader of the CSSD Social Democrats, had been scheduled to tender his resignation at a meeting with President Milos Zeman on Thursday afternoon.

But when Sobotka failed to do so, the encounter descended into a showdown between the two leftwing politicians, whose relations have always been tense.

In comments dripping with sarcasm, Zeman wished Sobotka "success, health and happiness" in his future life and insisted that his government "refrain from undertaking any strategic decisions".

Saying he was "disappointed" by Zeman's attitude, Sobotka confirmed that he would formally tender his resignation "around May 20" and that his CSSD party was "ready to form a government on the basis of the existing coalition".

Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said earlier Thursday that either he or Interior Minister Milan Chovanec -- both CSSD members -- could replace Sobotka to keep the current coalition government intact until elections this fall.

According to Zaoralek, Sobotka had insisted "he was prepared to offer his post to other people, that he does not insist on being the PM."

Zeman was also reported to be keen on simply replacing Sobotka rather than dissolving the government six months before elections scheduled for October 20-21, which are in turn three months ahead of a presidential vote.

Sobotka has been in office since 2014, with his leftist CSSD sharing power in a coalition government with Andrej Babis's centrist ANO and the smaller centre-right KDU-CSL Christian Democratic parties.

The second-wealthiest Czech citizen, the 62-year-old Babis found himself under fire over his purchase of tax-free bonds issued by his mammoth Agrofert farming conglomerate.

Sobotka has cast doubt on the way Babis raised money to buy the bonds and insisted that a finance minister fighting tax evasion should not benefit from tax loopholes. Babis has denied any wrongdoing.

His ANO party is riding high in opinion polls, scoring 33.5 percent support compared with just 16 percent for Sobotka's CSSD, in a survey conducted by the pollsters CVVM in April.

Babis is also the Czech Republic's most popular politician, with a 56 percent approval rating according to an April CVVM poll, compared with 39 percent for Sobotka, in sixth place.