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UPDATE 4-Romanian president may keep job on low turnout

by on July 29, 2012 7:58 pm BST
 

Sun Jul 29, 2012 3:58pm EDT

* Basescu unpopular for backing austerity

* Set to survive referendum on 50 pct minimum turnout rule

* 37.7 pct voted by 1700 GMT, polls open until 2000 GMT

* Row raised doubts over IMF deal, hit currency

By Luiza Ilie and Sam Cage

BUCHAREST, July 29 (Reuters) – Low turnout on Sunday for a
referendum to impeach suspended Romanian President Traian
Basescu looked likely to derail the effort by his opponents to
oust him from office.

The election bureau said turnout was 37.7 percent by 8 p.m.
(1700 GMT), suggesting 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.

Unless at least 50 percent of voters cast a ballot, the
referendum would be invalid, setting the stage for more clashes
between Basescu and his opponents in the government.

Ponta’s efforts to unseat Basescu have already brought a
stern dressing-down from the European Union, which accused him
of undermining the rule of law and intimidating judges.

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

Opinion polls show some 65 percent of Romanians want to
remove the former sea captain from office, but the opposition
had called for a boycott of the vote.

Many people were on holiday on referendum day as the
temperature hit 39 C (102 F), prompting the government to set up
extra polling stations, many of them at seaside restaurants and
hotels, to make it easier to vote.

“Even though my wife works in the public sector and Basescu
cut her salary, I will not vote and this should tell you how
much I distrust the USL,” said Ionut Bragan, a professional
driver waiting to cross the road in Bucharest’s sweltering sun.

The electoral bureau’s figures have a margin of error of
three percentage points and do not include Romanians voting
abroad, so final turnout figures – probably due on Monday –
could yet make it a close call.

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 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.

EU PRESSURE

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.

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.
Brussels said it was concerned about the government’s respect
for the rule of law, democratic procedures 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 following 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 ($6.2 billion) 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.

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 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.

“If the referendum fails and Basescu remains president,
political instability is likely to worsen,” said James Goundry,
analyst with IHS Global Insight.