Romania government pushes ahead with campaign against president

BUCHAREST/BRUSSELS Fri Jul 13, 2012 4:04pm EDT

Romania's President Traian Basescu takes notes before the Parliament vote on suspending him over what the ruling Social Liberal Union (USL) says is his attempt to pressure judges and break the constitution, in Bucharest July 6, 2012. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

Romania's President Traian Basescu takes notes before the Parliament vote on suspending him over what the ruling Social Liberal Union (USL) says is his attempt to pressure judges and break the constitution, in Bucharest July 6, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Radu Sigheti

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BUCHAREST/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Romania's ruling party plans to extend voting in a referendum on whether to impeach the president to two days from one, a senior politician said on Friday, seeking to boost voter turnout and minimize the risk of failure in its efforts to drive him out.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta's campaign against President Traian Basescu, his long-time political rival, has drawn criticism from Brussels.

The change in voting time would increase the chances that turnout at the July 29 referendum will exceed 50 percent of the voters. Ponta has abolished this threshold for referendums to be valid but is now under pressure by the European Union to reintroduce it.

The proposal came just a day after EU leaders met with Ponta in Brussels and rebuked him for undermining constitutional checks and balances in his campaign against Basescu.

Parliament, which is dominated by Ponta's Social Liberal Union (USL), will decide on the proposed change in extraordinary sessions held on Tuesday and Wednesday, lawmakers said.

"It's the parliament's right to decide," senator Ilie Sarbu, Ponta's father-in-law and leader of his party's senators, was quoted as saying by the state news agency Agerpres.

"It can decide an additional day ... so that people are not time-pressured."

Basescu was suspended by a vote in parliament last week, a move the referendum could make permanent. With a two-day vote much more likely to reach the 50 percent mark, the fate of the president looks grim, as his personal popularity is only around 10 percent.

The battle is only the latest between the Balkan country's top political powers - Ponta's Socialists, reformed heirs of the Communists once led by repressive Soviet-era dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and Basescu's conservative Democrat-Liberal allies.

It has spooked markets and could endanger an International Monetary Fund loan that helps prop up the recession-hit economy of the EU's second poorest and third most corrupt country.

NO COMMANDMENTS

Analysts said the change could clash with the spirit, if not the letter, of a list of demands European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso gave Ponta on Thursday.

"The USL came up with this idea to prolong the voting period as it seems that Ponta will eventually have to bow to pressure from Brussels and enforce the minimum voter threshold," political analyst Mircea Marian told Reuters.

Barroso expressed "serious concern" about political events Brussels says have sidelined the Constitutional Court and undermined democratic institutions.

Interim President Crin Antonescu, co-leader of the USL with Ponta, played down the EU pressure on the government.

"There has been talk about the 11 ‘commandments', that the European Commission president gave to the prime minister of Romania," Antonescu said in a speech at the presidential palace.

"I have to say very clearly there are no such things because we don't have such a document and because it would have meant an unacceptable and unimaginable overstepping of powers by Mr. Barroso."

Ponta has said only that he received "a list of questions" that he would respond to in writing by Monday.

The Commission's list, seen by Reuters, calls on Ponta to retract a decree abolishing the 50 percent turnout rule for referendums, and in general to use decrees, which bypass the role of parliament, only in emergencies.

It also urges the government to adhere to decisions by the Constitutional Court.

PARDONS

Ponta says he wants Basescu out because he opposes the government's efforts to reform the economy and for abusing his post by bending its powers to assist his allies.

Ponta has pledged to address the Commission's concerns in full and said he would respect a post-referendum decision by the Constitutional Court on whether the vote is valid.

If not, Brussels can maintain Romania's judiciary and efforts to curb corruption under a monitoring program. It can also keep the country out of the passport-free Schengen area, which has been an embarrassment for Bucharest.

Also on Friday, the Foreign Ministry published the list of 150 Romanian polling stations abroad, cutting in half the number from the 2009 presidential elections that Basescu narrowly won. Romanians living outside the country helped him in that vote.

"I will vote to impeach Basescu, but that does not mean I support the USL," said Vlad Pietreanu, a 42-year-old statistician. "Still, I think there will be less than half of voters who turn up, and so Basescu will remain the president. Imagine how weird that will be."

Constitutional experts say there could be ways that Ponta could delay complying with the Constitutional Court's ruling on the referendum, as well as with the EU demands - which could cause a potential constitutional crisis.

The European Commission also called for the reinstatement of the Constitutional Court's powers to check the constitutionality of parliamentary decisions, and for the appointment of an ombudsman who enjoys cross-party support.

It said no acting president - a post now held by Antonescu - should issue criminal pardons. This request appeared to be directed at speculation that the party may be working to pardon Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister and Ponta's mentor who shot himself last month just as police were to take him to prison for a graft conviction.

(Additional reporting by Ioana Patran, Luiza Ilie, and Andreea Birsan in Bucharest; Writing by Michael Winfrey; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Alessandra Rizzo)

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