Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Romania yields to EU on referendum turnout threshold

By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)

BUCHAREST — Romania's interim leader caved in to EU pressure Monday and approved a law requiring a turnout of more than 50 percent for a referendum on impeaching of suspended president Traian Basescu.

Brussels and the United States have voiced repeated worries over the drive by Prime Minister Victor Ponta's government to impeach Basescu and curb the powers of the constitutional court.

After days of intense outside pressure, interim president Crin Antonescu reversed course and approved a law requiring a threshold of more than 50 percent turnout for the July 29 vote to be valid, complying with a ruling by the constitutional court last week.

"I decided to approve this law and I believe this puts an end to a burning issue," he said after a meeting with Ponta and the heads of the two chambers of parliament.

He nevertheless expressed his personal reservations about the measure.

Romania's centre-left lawmakers earlier this month suspended the centre-right Basescu, who was once one of Romania's most popular politicians but whose popularity plummeted as austerity cuts were imposed in 2010.

The row over the fate of Basescu and over the powers of the constitutional court has thrown Romania into its worst crisis since it emerged from communist dictatorship just over two decades ago.

Ponta's Social Liberal Union ruling coalition, which took office only in May, initially refused to commit itself to the 50-percent threshold, but on Monday backed the requirement.

Parliament voted to impeach 60-year-old Basescu, a former sea captain who became president in 2004, over claims he improperly assumed the powers of the prime minister when he announced the austerity measures two years ago.

Antonescu on Friday blasted Brussels after it gave Ponta a list of its concerns over the political and judicial crisis in one of Europe's poorest countries, which has been an EU member since 2007.

"The president of Romania, even the interim president, doesn't take orders... from anyone except parliament and the Romanian people," he said.

Antonescu said a Brussels "to-do" list would "represent an unacceptable and unimaginable overreach of the European Commission's powers".

Earlier Monday, an EU official said that Bucharest had only sent a draft letter and commission spokesman Olivier Bailly said a formal response "must arrive urgently."

On Monday evening however Ponta said Hungary had answered all the questions that Brussels had put to it over the political crisis.

"On Friday, I sent a draft and today I officially answered (their) questions... so on the substance (of the matter) things are now clear," he told Romania's Realitatea TV.

He had spoken to the European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso by telephone that evening, he added.

The United States had also in recent days expressed its concern, calling on Romania to conduct impeachment proceedings in "a fully fair and transparent manner."

The crisis could yet threaten Romania's entry into the Schengen borderless travel area and lead to other repercussions.

Its entry into Schengen, which includes most EU states, would be a significant milestone for Romania, which was ruled by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu until 1989.

But the Netherlands is blocking Romania's candidacy and other EU officials have expressed disquiet.

Attaining a 50-percent turnout is tough in Romania, where voters are increasingly disappointed with their political leaders.

But just 13 days ahead of the referendum, the number of eligible voters has still not been published and the number of polling stations abroad has been reduced.

Also Monday, the International Monetary Fund and the EU said they had postponed an assessment mission until after the referendum.

"This is a normal procedure. The IMF and the European Union do not want to come here during an election campaign," Ponta said.

Romania obtained a 20-billion-euro rescue package from the IMF, the EU and the World Bank in May 2009, in exchange for drastic spending cuts.

That austerity programme is credited with helping Romania emerge from two years of severe recession. Its economy grew by 2.5 percent in 2011 and is expected to rise 1.5 percent this year.

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