By Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech government inched closer to finding a safe parliamentary majority to paper over a split in the ruling coalition before Monday's deadline set by the prime minister to avoid an early election.
Prime Minister Petr Necas kicked out the smallest of the three parties in the centre-right coalition, Public Affairs, due to strained relations with one of its main leaders, who was convicted of corruption.
But he is hoping a rebel faction that has peeled off from Public Affairs would gather at least the 10 deputies he said he needed to support the cabinet, giving it a safe majority.
He set Monday as the deadline, and warned he would seek an early election if there was no deal, but there were signs the deadline could be extended as talks moved ahead.
Some 90,000 protesters marched through Prague on Saturday calling for the end of the government - sending a clear message to those lawmakers trying to make up the numbers in parliament to avoid an election the coalition would be unlikely to win.
The centre-right cabinet has been increasingly unpopular due to its strict adherence to plans to cut the budget deficit below 3 percent of gross domestic product next year by tax hikes and spending cuts, as well as due to a string of graft scandals.
The fall of the government would throw the savings plans into doubt, as the opposition Social Democrats who hold a nearly 20 point lead in opinion polls pledged to repeal some of the austerity steps.
As of Monday, leader of the rebel faction Karolina Peake had nine deputies offering support for the cabinet, one short of Necas's demand for her to gather at least 10 votes.
The nine would be enough to give the cabinet a razor-thin majority in the 200-seat lower house of parliament.
Peake was looking for an extension of Necas's deadline, telling Reuters that she did not yet see a resolution to the crisis on Monday.
Analysts said the government was likely to survive, given early polls were undesirable for all the ruling parties.
"I believe the government parties do not have the will for an early election," commentator Jindrich Sidlo said on Czech Television. "Many (politicians) are facing the end of their careers, and the parties are facing big election losses."
Two sources from the other coalition parties said there was a belief Peake would succeed but possibly not on Monday.
A member of Peake's faction, parliamentary deputy Dagmar Navratilova, told Czech Radio she believed sufficient support would be found, and later confirmed nine deputies backed Peake.
The crown currency dropped 0.4 percent on Monday to a two-month low, in part due to uncertainty over the cabinet's future.
Necas has said he wanted to resolve the situation ahead of a parliamentary session due to start on Tuesday, saying that calling a new election in June would require quick action.
But under the constitution, he has more time. The parliament can vote any time to dissolve itself, allowing for a June vote.
The main reason Necas wanted Public Affairs out is Vit Barta, a shadow leader and main brain of the party. He was given a suspended 18 month sentence this month for bribing his party colleagues to secure their loyalty.
Barta however has a grip over a large chunk of the party, which stormed into parliament in 2010 on a wave of hope it would help clean-up rampant corruption. But it has instead become the source of instability and a string of scandals itself.
The next election is due in mid-2014. An opinion poll last week showed the centre-left Social Democrats would win 37 percent of the vote, followed by the far-left Communists and Necas's Civic Democrats only in the third place with 17.5 percent. Public Affairs would not win any seats.
(Editing by Alison Williams)