Romanians have been voting on whether to impeach their president, Traian Basescu, after a government campaign to remove him that has drawn international criticism and raised doubts about the country’s IMF aid deal.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s leftist Social Liberal Union (USL) has suspended Basescu. The effort to unseat the president has prompted condemnation from Brussels, which accused Ponta 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. The president is unpopular for backing austerity measures and for perceptions of cronyism.
Opinion polls show that some 65% 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 was struggling to get the turnout of more than 50% on Sunday 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 pensioner from Bucharest.
Many people are on holiday and the temperature is expected to hit 39C on Sunday, 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% by 10am local time, suggesting it could be very close to 50% by the time polls close at 11pm.
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 the PDL 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% 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,” the interim president and USL co-leader, Crin Antonescu, said.
The impeachment row has delayed policymaking, raised doubts about Romania’s â‚¬5bn (Â£3.9bn) International Monetary Fund-led aid deal, sent its currency the leu plunging to record lows and pushed up borrowing costs.
The IMF has said it will begin a two-week review of the aid deal on Tuesday, 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.
The Ponta government drew the ire of the EU when it took on the constitutional court, threatening to replace judges and reduce its powers, and ignoring one of its decisions.
He promised the EU 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.