BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanians overwhelmingly rejected measures seen as making it harder to tackle rampant state corruption in a non-binding referendum on Sunday, dealing a double blow to the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) who also lost support in European elections.
The double ballot was the first big popularity test for the PSD whose overhaul of the judiciary and changes to anti-graft legislation have drawn strong criticism from the European Union and the United States.
The referendum, called by centrist President Klaus Iohannis, who has often clashed with the PSD over judicial and economic policies, asked voters to decide whether the government should be banned from altering judicial legislation via emergency decrees - as it can do now - and whether they want a national ban on any amnesty and pardoning for graft-related crimes.
According to data from the national election bureau, voter turnout stood at 41 percent when polling stations closed at 1800 GMT, above the 30 percent required for it to be valid. Analysts expect the turnout to equate with a big vote in favor of the anti-graft drive.
“The referendum succeeded with flying colors. Thank you Romanians. This is a clear vote for correct politics, for true justice. No politician can ignore your clear vote for an independent judiciary,” Iohannis said.
Exit polls for the European Parliament election, also held on Sunday, showed both the opposition centrist National Liberal Party and the ruling PSD on 25.8%, with the latter falling sharply below the 45% it won in the last national ballot in 2016.
A new alliance of opposition parties, USR-Plus, secured third place with 24% of votes.
The two ballots have mobilized voters fed up with graft in Romania, a nation of 20 million people which joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007. Popular musicians and actors urged people to vote, and bookshops and cafes offered discounts for voters.
“(The referendum result) is a clear victory against the Social Democrat Party,” said Sergiu Miscoiu, a political science professor at Babes-Bolyai University.
“The referendum was called to stimulate the anti-PSD vote ... ahead of the presidential election.”
Romania will hold a presidential election later this year, with Iohannis in pole position to win a new five-year term. Parliamentary elections are due in December 2020.
Prosecutors have secured a spate of convictions in recent years against lawmakers, ministers and mayors, including Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea. Their investigations have exposed conflicts of interest, abuse of power, fraud and the awarding of state contracts in exchange for bribes.
The Supreme Court is expected to announce a verdict on Monday in Dragnea’s appeal against a jail sentence imposed for inciting others to commit abuse of office.
Editing by Jane Merriman and Gareth Jones