Reuters International

Czech Republic's President Milos Zeman speaks during the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, China May 14, 2017. REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool

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PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech President Milos Zeman's approval rating plummeted in May, a survey showed on Tuesday, as his role in a messy government row took its political toll ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Zeman, a divisive figure who has fought with the media and sought better ties with Russia and China, has been accused of abusing his powers by refusing to approve Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka's plan to fire his popular finance minister in early May.

Sobotka accused the minister, Andrej Babis, of tax dodging in the past, which he denies. Their dispute appeared linked to elections in October, for which Babis's ANO party is far more popular in the opinion polls than Sobotka's Social Democrats.

Zeman prolonged the row by refusing to accept Babis's firing, which under Czech law the president must do, and setting his own conditions. The Social Democrats threatened to bring a suit for abuse of power against him in constitutional court.

The monthly poll by CVVM institute, taken between May 8-18 as the crisis reached its peak, showed Zeman's popularity dropped to 41 percent from 55 percent the previous month.

This was the first time it was below 50 percent since mid-2015 for Zeman, who will run for re-election early next year.

The survey showed confidence in the three-party coalition government dropped to 23 percent from 40 percent in April. Other polls tracking support for political parties indicated most of that was due to falling voter support for the Social Democrats.

Those polls give the ANO party a commanding double-digit lead in support, putting Babis - who was a billionaire businessman before becoming finance minister in 2014 - in a strong position to become the next prime minister.

Babis has said Sobotka's tax dodging accusations dating back to his business days were a political ploy against him and won Zeman's support in his bid to keep his finance ministry post.

The weeks of wrangling between Sobotka and Zeman only ended in mid-May when Babis agreed to be dismissed if he could pick his successor. When he proposed former Microsoft executive Ivan Pilny, the prime minister accepted him and the president approved the nomination.

Early in May, Sobotka offered to resign, but he contended that this would trigger the fall of the whole government, which it did in past cases, while Zeman said it would only mean his departure.

Zeman gave Sobotka a public dressing down in front of live TV cameras after he decided against resigning.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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