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UPDATE 2-Low turnout may spare Romanian president impeachment

by on July 29, 2012 4:59 pm GMT
 

Sun Jul 29, 2012 12:59pm EDT

* Basescu unpopular for backing austerity

* May survive on 50 pct minimum turnout rule

* 26.9 pct voted by 1400 GMT, polls open until 2000 GMT

* Row raised doubts over IMF deal, hit currency

By Luiza Ilie

BUCHAREST, July 29 (Reuters) – The Romanian government’s
drive to remove President Traian Basescu hung in the balance on
Sunday as turnout in a referendum on whether to impeach him
remained stubbornly low, well below the 50 percent level needed
for a valid vote.

The election bureau said turnout was 26.9 percent by 5 p.m.
(1400 GMT), suggesting that Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s
leftist Social Liberal Union (USL) would find it hard to get
half the electorate to vote by the time polls close at 11 p.m.

Ponta, whose government took office in May, has suspended
Basescu and is holding a referendum to seek popular backing for
his impeachment for overstepping his powers. The president is
unpopular for backing austerity and for perceptions of cronyism.

The methods Ponta has used in his efforts to unseat Basescu
have brought a stern dressing-down from the European Union,
which accused him of undermining the rule of law and
intimidating judges.

Opinion polls show 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, a disparate
alliance from across the political spectrum, is struggling to
get half the electorate to vote.

“I voted to take him down because he cut my pension and he
doesn’t deserve to be in power,” said Sandu Neacsu, a
66-year-old pensioner from Pantelimon near the capital
Bucharest.

Many people are on holiday and the temperature hit 39
Celsius on Sunday, prompting the government to set up extra
polling stations, many of them at seaside restaurants and
hotels, to make it easier to vote.

Basescu initially urged Romanians to vote against what he
called a coup d’etat, but this week he changed his mind and he
and his allies, the opposition Democrat Liberal Party (PDL),
asked supporters to boycott the referendum, citing concern about
the possibility of electoral fraud.

“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.

Voting was briefly suspended at several polling stations
across the country because of irregularities with voting stamps
and the interior ministry said it has confirmed 179 electoral
incidents out of 385 complaints.

Ponta said the referendum was taking place within the law.

EU PRESSURE

The European Union was highly critical of the methods the
Romanian government used against Basescu, and said it was
concerned about its respect for the rule of law, democratic
precedures and the judiciary.

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.

The row over Basescu has delayed policymaking, sent the leu
currency plunging to record lows, and pushed up borrowing costs.
It also raised concern about the future of Romania’s 5 billion
euro International Monetary Fund-led aid deal.

The IMF has said it will begin a two-week review of the 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 to 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 ombudsman.

If Basescu is impeached, a presidential election will be
held within three months. USL co-leader Crin Antonescu would
remain interim president until the vote, which could delay a
parliamentary election currently expected in November.

“Even a USL (presidential) victory might not lead to
stability, as divisions within the disparate coalition come to
the fore,” said James Goundry, analyst with IHS Global Insight.