Romania's president asks voters to boycott referendum

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 27, 2012 2:18 PM
Romania's president asks voters to boycott referendum

By Luiza Ilie

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's suspended President Traian Basescu urged Romanians to boycott a July 29 referendum to remove him from office on Friday, the last day of a campaign that has divided the country and raised European Union concerns over respect for rule of law.

The ruling leftist Social Liberal Union (USL) of Prime Minister Victor Ponta suspended Basescu earlier this month, saying the rightist president overstepped his powers. Basescu, in turn, accused the USL of trying to stage a coup and take control of independent institutions.

Basescu and anti-graft experts say Ponta's rush to oust him may be linked to a string of corruption investigations, including the conviction of Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister and mentor to Ponta.

Polls indicate Sunday's vote will be in favor of impeaching Basescu, who is deeply unpopular after of backing austerity measures and accusations of cronyism, but turnout of at least half the electorate is required to make the result valid.

"I am asking Romanians not to participate in this referendum behind which some irresponsible politicians are trying to hide a coup," Basescu said at his campaign headquarters.

He also expressed "consistent reasons" to suspect the USL will try to rig the results, including an extended voting program, unclear voter lists that would make multiple votes easier and a move by the government to set up additional voting polls in restaurants, bars and hotels.

The turnout requirement - set by a Constitutional Court ruling which the USL initially tried to ignore - gives Basescu a fighting chance, after his allies, the opposition Democrat Liberals also asked their supporters not to vote.

That and timing - during what is traditionally a holiday month - could cut turnout, which was 56 percent in local June elections, below half.

Interim president Crin Antonescu, who co-runs the USL with Ponta, said referendum preparations have been above board, and asked Romanians to vote.

"The right to vote is citizens' fundamental way of participating," he told reporters.

The USL and Ponta have had a dressing down from Brussels on concerns about undermining the rule of law, intimidating judges and removing officials in their campaign to oust Basescu.

The government accuses Basescu of having undue influence over the judiciary. Prosecutors have notched up a series of convictions and the EU has demanded that it prosecute and jail senior figures to prove it is serious about corruption.

The USL tried to change laws to its advantage and threatened to replace Constitutional Court judges and limit the Court's powers before backing down. It also defied a court decision.

"I will not vote because the USL have tried to change everything so that they could win," said Adrian Oanta, a 21-year-old student after a rally in support of Basescu.

"Since they came to power they have done nothing to get Romania out of the (economic) crisis," he said.

Romania, hit hard by the debt crisis in the euro zone - eastern Europe's main trade and banking partner - remains the European Union's second-poorest member.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)