* Basescu unpopular for backing austerity
* May survive on minimum turnout rule
* 9.1 pct voted by 0700 GMT, suggests tight result
* Row raised doubts over IMF deal, hit currency
By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST, July 29 (Reuters) – Romanians voted on Sunday on
whether to impeach their unpopular president, Traian Basescu,
after a government campaign to remove him that has drawn
international criticism of its methods and raised doubts about
the country’s IMF aid deal.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s leftist Social Liberal Union
(USL) has suspended Basescu and its drive to unseat him has
brought a stern dressing-down from Brussels, which accused him
of undermining the rule of law and intimidating judges.
Ponta’s government took office in May and is holding the
referendum to seek popular backing for the impeachment of
Basescu for overstepping his powers. He is unpopular for backing
austerity and for perceptions of cronyism.
Opinion polls show that some 65 percent of Romanians want to
remove the former sea captain from office, but the opposition
has called for a boycott of the vote and the USL is struggling
to get the turnout of over 50 percent needed for a valid vote.
“I am not a fan of Basescu but I will not vote because I do
not approve of the way the government stepped on laws to have
their way,” said Dan Popescu, a 52-year-old Bucharest pensioner.
Many people are on holiday and the temperature is expected
to hit 39 Celcius, prompting the government to set up extra
polling stations, many of them at seaside restaurants and
hotels, to make it easier to vote.
After three hours of voting, the election bureau said
turnout was 9.1 percent by 10 a.m. (0700 GMT), suggesting it
could be very close to 50 percent by the time polls close at 11
Basescu and his allies, the opposition Democrat Liberal
Party (PDL), asked their supporters to boycott the referendum.
The suspended president initially urged Romanians to vote
against what he called a coup d’etat, but his stance shifted
this week when he and his PDL allies said they were concerned
about the possibility of electoral fraud.
The government had tried to make it easier to impeach
Basescu by removing the minimum turnout rule but was forced to
back down by harsh EU criticism and a Constitutional Court
ruling that a 50 percent turnout was obligatory.
“I hope the voting presence will be decisive and … that by
the end of this day we will know and enforce the will of a
majority of citizens,” interim president and USL co-leader Crin
Antonescu said after voting.
The row over Basescu has delayed policymaking, raised doubts
about Romania’s 5 billion euro International Monetary Fund-led
aid deal, sent the leu currency plunging to record lows, and
pushed up borrowing costs.
The IMF has said it will begin a two-week review of
Romania’s aid deal on July 31, a week later than planned because
of the impeachment referendum.
Romania has made progress since the 1989 overthrow of
communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and joined the EU in 2007,
but the economy slipped back into recession in the first quarter
of this year and pockets of severe poverty remain.
Brussels has a wide range of levers with which to put
pressure on Romania, whose justice system is under EU
monitoring. Romania gets European cash to help it catch up with
other members and the bloc contributes to its IMF-led aid deal.
Ponta felt the full weight of EU wrath after his government
took on the Constitutional Court, threatening to replace judges
and reduce its powers, and ignoring one of its decisions.
He promised the European Union that he would respect the
rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, but Brussels
replied that it had yet to see proof of this, for example by the
replacement of a USL loyalist with a neutral figure as public
If Basescu is impeached, a presidential election will be
held within three months. Antonescu would remain interim
president until the vote, which could delay a parliamentary
election currently expected in November.