BUCHAREST: Romanian President Traian Basescu escaped impeachment Monday when a referendum on his removal from office fell short of the 50 per cent turnout threshold, despite a resounding vote for his dismissal.
Official results showed that 87.55 per cent of those who took part in Sunday's referendum had voted in favour of Basescu's impeachment, while only 11.12 per cent of voters had rallied to the president's cause.
But, according to the returns from more than 97 per cent of polling stations, participation rate reached just 46.13 per cent — well short of the 50 per cent threshold needed for the result to be validated by the constitutional court.
Even before the publication of the official results, Basescu had declared victory in his efforts to see off by his rivals in the centre-left USL coalition to turf him out of office.
Basescu, of the centre-right PDL party, said that Romanians had voted “for Europe, and for democracy”.
But he also tried to acknowledge the frustrations of voters, by saying he understood the “anger” of the millions who voted to oust him after eight years in office.
The vote marked the culmination of weeks of bitter feuding that left Romania in political limbo and cast doubt over the democratic credentials of one of the European Union's newest member.
“Romanians have rejected the coup staged by the 256 lawmakers led by (Prime Minister) Victor Ponta and (interim president) Crin Antonescu,” Basescu said from his campaign headquarters minutes after polling closed.
Antonescu pledged that the constitution would be respected in dealing with the result of the impeachment referendum, the second such attempt against Basescu's rule in five years.
But speaking before the publication of the results, Ponta hinted that Romania's political crisis would continue should the result allow Basescu, who was suspended by parliament earlier this month, to cling to his job.
“Any politician who ignores the will of millions of voters is disconnected from reality,” he said after voting wrapped up, arguing that Basescu's legitimacy would be undermined.
The 60-year-old Basescu was one of the country's most popular politicians but his job-approval ratings plummeted amid austerity cuts in 2010.
The referendum comes after weeks of contentious moves by the government to manipulate Romania's political institutions, which led to sharp warnings from Brussels and the United States that democracy was being eroded.
Around 18.3 million people were eligible to vote.
To encourage the highest possible turnout, opening hours were extended and a number of additional polling stations set up along the Black Sea coast for holidaymakers and rural populations in a country where voter fatigue is high.
Romania, which joined the European Union in 2007, has been gripped by a bitter feud between the conservative president and 39-year-old Ponta's USL coalition, which took power in May and quickly moved to oust Basescu.
The USL put up banners around Bucharest reading, “Go Vote, Impeach Him”.
Basescu said last week that he was willing “to govern with the current majority to ensure the country's stability”.
In the run-up to the referendum, Ponta's government removed opposition parliamentary speakers, sacked an ombudsman and clipped the powers of the constitutional court.
The European Commission said the moves “raise serious doubts” about Romania's understanding of the rule of law but nevertheless praised efforts to fight graft by the anti-corruption prosecutor's office and other institutions.