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UPDATE 5-Romanian president survives impeachment referendum

by on July 29, 2012 10:28 pm GMT
 

Sun Jul 29, 2012 6:28pm EDT

* 46 pct voted vs 50 pct needed to make referendum valid

* More than 80 pct of those who went to ballot box voted to
impeach Basescu

* Basescu unpopular for austerity, cronyism

By Luiza Ilie and Sam Cage

BUCHAREST, July 29 (Reuters) – Romanian President Traian
Basescu survived a referendum on his impeachment on Sunday after
the voter turnout fell short of the required level and derailed
an effort by his opponents to oust him from office.

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

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 election bureau said the voter turnout was 46 percent,
below the 50 percent threshold Ponta’s leftist Social Liberal
Union (USL) needed to make the referendum valid.

Exit polls showed more than 80 percent of those who went to
the ballot box had voted to remove the president.

“The flame of democracy has remained alight. Romanians have
rejected the coup d’etat,” Basescu said.

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

The electoral bureau’s figures have a margin of error of
three percentage points and do not include Romanians voting
abroad, but it is now almost certain that final figures –
probably on Monday – will show turnout was below 50 percent.

Opinion polls had shown some 65 percent of Romanians wanted
to remove the former sea captain from office, but the opposition
had called for a boycott of the vote and many people were on
holiday.

The president’s most important power is nominating the prime
minister, which could be crucial after a November election that
may leave a split parliament. The president also appoints the
chief prosecutor and some judges, including to the
Constitutional Court.

That court, which previously said the threshold had to be
observed, will make the decision on the vote’s validity this
week.

“The Romanian government will respect all decisions of the
Constitutional Court and will act as a factor of stability in
the next period, regardless of whether the referendum is
validated or not,” Ponta said.

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.

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.

“We have an entire political class that puts their own
interest before the country’s,” said pensioner Monica Munteanu.
“I am not voting.”

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.

The USL says Basescu – whose term expires in 2014, when he
cannot run again – had undue influence over the judiciary after
the Constitutional Court ruled against some government laws.

The president can block legislation but only once before
parliament can overrule him with a second 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.