BUCHAREST Romania's unpopular President Traian Basescu may survive an impeachment referendum on Sunday thanks to a requirement that turnout must be more than half for the vote to be valid.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta's leftist government has suspended Basescu and their campaign to unseat the president has brought a stern dressing-down from Brussels over respect for the judiciary and the rule of law.
Ponta's Social Liberal Union (USL) took office in May and is asking Romanians to vote on whether to impeach Basescu for overstepping his powers. He is unpopular for backing austerity and perceptions of cronyism.
Polls show some 65 percent want to remove former sea captain from office, but that the USL will struggle to achieve the required 50 percent plus one turnout after the opposition called for a boycott of the vote.
On Friday, the last day of campaigning, Basescu also asked for a boycott.
He had initially urged Romanians to vote to defeat what he called a coup d'etat, but his stance gradually shifted this week when he and his Democrat Liberal allies said they were concerned about the possibility of electoral fraud.
"I think there will be less than half of voters who turn up, and so Basescu will remain the president," said statistician Vlad Pietreanu.
The government had sought to make it easier to impeach Basescu by removing the minimum turnout rule, but it was forced to back down after harsh EU criticism and to abide by a Constitutional Court ruling on voter numbers.
The bickering has delayed policymaking and raised doubts over Romania's 5 billion euro International Monetary Fund-led aid deal and sent the leu currency plunging to record lows, while borrowing costs have risen.
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 and pockets of severe poverty remain.
Brussels has a wide range of levers to pressure Romania, whose justice system is under EU monitoring. Romania gets European cash to help it catch up with other members and the EU contributes to its IMF-led deal.
Ponta felt the full weight of EU wrath after his government took on the Constitutional Court, threatening to replace judges, reduce its powers and ignoring one of its decisions.
He committed to a series of pledges to the EU that he would respect the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, though Brussels has responded that it still has not yet seen concrete action, for example in naming a neutral public ombudsman rather than a USL loyalist.
If Basescu is impeached, a presidential election will be held within three months. USL co-leader Crin 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)