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Impeachment Referendum Falls Short In Romania; Basescu Survives

The attempt by Romanian Premier Victor Ponta to impeach President Trajan Basescu failed to get the required voter turnout.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 7/31/2012, 5:13 AM

Still President Basescu
Still President Basescu
Reuters

Sometimes 4% can trump 74%, particularly when we are dealing with Romania. The attempt by Romanian Premier Victor Ponta to impeach President Trajan Basescu failed because only 46% of the eligible voters bothered to vote. According to the constitution that Ponta had to abide by, after a bit of arm twisting from the European Union, a 50% threshold turnout is required for a referendum to be valid.

Basescu, realizing that this was his only escape route, urged supporters to boycott the referendum. Those bothering to turn out voted by an overwhelming majority of over 87% to impeach the president.

Voters are angry at the austerity imposed in 2009 as part of an IMF loan agreement with Romania. The authors of the austerity program were Basescu and the center-right party that he influenced. When Ponta was elected, his center left party pledged to tone down the austerity with a better social safety net.

Both sides have claimed victory. President Basescu claimed that a coup had been averted and counted absentees as people who supported him. Ponta took satisfaction in the lopsided majority recorded in the actual vote, which in his opinion, punctures the legitimacy of Basescu once and for all.

The European Union was uneasy with the process, both because Basescu's austerity was the policy sanctioned by the EU and also because it fears that Ponta is playing fast and loose with the constitutional process and attempting to intimidate the Constitutional Court. This resembles the apprehensions in Brussels over the actions of Romania's neighbor Hungary.

The irony of the situation is that Hungary may have actually pulled Basescu's chestnuts out of the fire. Romania and Hungary have long quarreled over Transylvania and this dispute figured in both World Wars. Romania, as a country that defected from the Axis to the Allies in the 2nd World War - while Hungary remained an axis country to the end - got to keep Transylvania in the postwar settlements, but the area retains a large number of ethnic Hungarians.

It was hoped that membership in the EU with open borders and mutual economic benefit would attenuate this dispute. The referendum showed that not all is well on this issue.

Romanian Prime Minister Viktor Orban  advised the Hungarian minority in Romania how to vote when speaking at a cultural event for ethnic Hungarians in Romania. “I wish for Romanians, and Hungarians living here too, to take the right decision, such as by not taking one at all,” he said.

In other words, they were to boycott the referendum, thus increasing Basescu's chances for survival. Exceedingly low turnout was reported in 2 counties with high concentrations of ethnic Hungarians.

Romanian Prime Minister Ponta expressed outrage at this external intervention, while Basescu tendered his thanks. Ponta's party is a descendant of the former Communists, the same lot that Orban is trying to eliminate in Hungary. which goes a long way towards explaining why Hungarian voters stayed home.