By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanians voted on Sunday on whether to impeach their unpopular president, Traian Basescu, after a government campaign to remove him that has drawn international criticism of its methods and raised doubts about the country's IMF aid deal.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL) has suspended Basescu and its drive to unseat him has brought a stern dressing-down from Brussels, which accused him of undermining the rule of law and intimidating judges.
Ponta's government took office in May and is holding the referendum to seek popular backing for the impeachment of Basescu for overstepping his powers. He is unpopular for backing austerity and for perceptions of cronyism.
Opinion polls show that 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 is struggling to get the turnout of over 50 percent needed for a valid vote.
"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.
Many people are on holiday and the temperature is expected to hit 39 Celcius, prompting the government to set up extra polling stations, many of them at seaside restaurants and hotels, to make it easier to vote.
After three hours of voting, the election bureau said turnout was 9.1 percent by 10 a.m. (3 a.m. EDT), suggesting it could be very close to 50 percent by the time polls close at 11 p.m.
Basescu and his allies, the opposition Democrat Liberal Party (PDL), asked their supporters to boycott the referendum.
The suspended president initially urged Romanians to vote against what he called a coup d'etat, but his stance shifted this week when he and his PDL allies said they were concerned about the possibility of electoral fraud.
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.
"I hope the voting presence will be decisive and ... that by the end of this day we will know and enforce the will of a majority of citizens," interim president and USL co-leader Crin Antonescu said after voting.
The row over Basescu has delayed policymaking, raised doubts about Romania's 5 billion euro International Monetary Fund-led aid deal, sent the leu currency plunging to record lows, and pushed up borrowing costs.
The IMF has said it will begin a two-week review of Romania's aid 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 the European Union that he would 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. Antonescu would remain interim president until the vote, which could delay a parliamentary election currently expected in November.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie and Sam Cage, editing by Tim Pearce)