The FINANCIAL -- Romania's
centre-right president Traian Basescu faces an impeachment vote Sunday
that has raised questions about the democratic credentials of one of the
newest members of the European Union.
Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta, his centre-left rival, have been locked for three weeks in a fight to the finish, sparking one of Romania's worst crises since the communist regime was toppled in 1989.
The move to impeach the 61-year-old president has seen opposition speakers being removed and limits set on the powers of the constitutional court, drawing unprecedented criticism from the European Union and the United States.
Ponta is allied to the Liberal Party (PNL) whose leader Crin Antonescu became interim president after Basescu was suspended pending Sunday's referendum on his impeachment.
The developments in Romania "raise serious doubts about... the understanding of the meaning of the rule of law in a pluralist democratic system," the European Commission said last week, urging Bucharest to respect democratic values.
Ponta was handed a "to-do" list during talks in Brussels two weeks ago, in which he was told that the EU member state, which joined in 2004, must fall in line with the bloc's basic values.
Since then, Ponta has given guarantees to the EU over the rule of law and said he will "assume responsibility for putting them into practice".
Sunday's vote could spell the end of the political career of Basescu, a former sea captain who was once one of Romania's most popular politicians and who has seen his ratings plummet amid austerity cuts imposed in 2010.
Opinion polls show that two out of three Romanians would now vote for his ouster.
However the referendum will only be valid if more than 50 percent of the 18.3 million registered voters turn out, a threshold which seems out of reach in a country where voter fatigue is high.
In addition, some three million Romanians have emigrated over the last few years and they too could be reluctant to vote, sociologists say.
Basescu, in power since 2004, has decided to use a controversial trump card: encouraging abstention in the vote so that he can complete his second five-year term.
His Liberal Democrat allies have urged a boycott of the referendum, which they brand a "masquerade", claiming the prime minister's Social Liberal Union (USL) coalition was planning to rig the vote.
"We cannot warrant the long series of irregularities and abuses" by the USL, Liberal Democrat leader Vasile Blaga said.
The boycott call has angered Ponta's allies, who accuse Basescu of being a "coward" and have complained to the European Union about the "undemocratic" move.
After unwillingly yielding to Brussels' demand to enforce a turnout threshold, the governing coalition will have to drum up hundreds of thousands of additional voters to make sure the vote is valid.
Many Romanians feel confused given the conflicting messages.
"I was planning to vote against impeachment but now I'm not so sure because I'm afraid my ballot will help validate the referendum" and topple Basescu, said Sanda Cotenescu, a 76-year-old pensioner.
"Too bad Basescu did not have the guts to call on people to vote. Many Romanians, who were shocked by the impeachment move, would have voted -- not for him but against his opponents," political analyst Alina Mungiu-Pippidi told AFP.
But Mircea Vasilescu, an editorialist at the Adevarul newspaper, said that irrespective of the outcome, "political instability will continue"
"Romanians will face the same problems as before. Besides, Romania is now Europe's black sheep."
As EUbusiness reported, on Thursday both sides held final rallies.
"We won't vote," Basescu supporters chanted at Revolution Square in central Bucharest.
Organisers said the crowd numbered in thousands, with some Liberal Democrat supporters sporting t-shirts proclaiming their plan to boycott the vote.
Meanwhile, a few kilometres (miles) away, thousands of USL supporters gathered and chanted "Down with Basescu" and "Jail Basescu", as officials called on them to vote.
"It's the only way for Romania to have a future," said Ponta, while slamming the salary cuts introduced by Basescu in 2010.