PRAGUE, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Support for the Czech Republic's ruling Civic Democrats (ODS) led by Prime Minister Petr Necas has fallen to its lowest since 1998, a poll showed on Wednesday, taking them below their centre-right rivals and far below the main opposition party.
The slide in support shows the centre-right ODS, hurt by a string of corruption scandals and by its pursuit of austerity policies, needs to change to win over voters ahead of a general election next spring.
Backing for the party dropped to 11.6 percent in February from 13.8 percent a month ago, close to that for the Communist Party, the unreformed heirs of the Soviet-era rulers, which was supported by 11.3 percent of respondents, ratings agency STEM said on Wednesday.
ODS's approval rating fell below that of rival conservative TOP09 which is also part of the austerity-minded administration.
TOP09's backing jumped to 14.2 percent from 9.2 percent last month, helped by the country's first direct presidential election in which the party's popular chief and founder, Karel Schwarzenberg, unexpectedly advanced to a runoff, STEM said.
Support for the main opposition Social Democrats rose to 28.2 percent in February from 26.5 percent the previous month, the poll of 1,090 Czechs over the age of 18 showed, according to STEM.
Necas's government has cut social benefits and repeatedly increased taxes, preferring to keep the budget deficit in check even at the cost of crumbling growth.
The central European economy has been in recession since mid-2011 mainly due to a drop in household and government consumption as a result of fiscal tightening. Unemployment hit a record high in January.
Necas's ODS has also angered people due to a number of corruption scandals, in the latest of which one of its lower house deputies was sentenced to 5 years in jail for taking a bribe while at a municipality post. (Reporting by Jana Mlcochova; Editing by Hugh Lawson)