By Radu Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's opposition asked its supporters on Tuesday not to vote in Sunday's referendum on impeaching President Traian Basescu, in an effort to keep turnout below 50 percent and invalidate the result.
The European Union has criticized the government, forcing it to back down over a series of measures that would tighten its grip and make it easier to remove Basescu, who is unpopular for his links to austerity and perceived cronyism.
Parliament, dominated by Prime Minister Victor Ponta's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL), has suspended the rightist Basescu on charges of overstepping his powers and Sunday's referendum will decide whether to remove him permanently.
Lawmakers have complied with a Constitutional Court ruling that a majority of votes would be enough to impeach Basescu, but that at least half Romania's 18.3 million voters must cast their ballots for the referendum to be valid.
"Our sympathizers cannot validate such a sequence of illegalities and abuses," said Vasile Blaga, leader of the opposition Democrat-Liberal Party (PDL), which has close links to Basescu.
"This is basically a USL attempt to validate a decision of their 256 parliamentarians when President Basescu was suspended. We ask Romanian citizens to abstain from such a masquerade," Blaga told reporters after a party meeting.
The political turmoil has raised doubts about the future of an International Monetary Fund-led aid deal, sending the Romanian leu to record lows in a country already weathering a recession.
Mass abstentions in a country where turnout hovers around 50 percent even in normal times could result in Basescu surviving because of the low turnout, even if there were a large majority vote in favor of impeachment.
"They called the electorate to the polls, they should prove that their decision to suspend me is the correct one," Basescu said in an interview on television station The Money Channel.
PDL officials have complained about a government move to extend voting time by four hours and to set up extra polling stations in Black Sea resorts to bring in voters who are on holiday, which they say will artificially boost turnout.
The new ballot stations and lack of surveillance cameras could also give more scope for fraud attempts, the PDL said.
The Constitutional Court is expected to rule on the extended voting hours later on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Radu Marinas, editing by Tim Pearce)