Romania's unpopular President was fighting for his political life last night as Romanians voted on whether to oust him, as part of a political battle that has raised questions about the rule of law in the fledgling European Union member state.
Traian Basescu's rivals in the government are seeking to push him out for the second time in five years. They claim the 60-year-old populist violated the constitution by meddling in government business and using the secret services against enemies.
Mr Basescu, a former ship's captain whose popularity has plummeted over economic challenges and austerity measures, claims he's the victim of a political vendetta and has urged his supporters to boycott the vote – a tactic that may help him survive thanks to a rule requiring turnout to be more than half of the total electorate.
Over the past two years, Mr Basescu has seen his approval rating drop largely because the government introduced austerity measures to meet demands by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a multibillion euro loan. Public wages were cut by one-fourth and sales tax raised to 24 per cent, one of the highest in the European Union.
The political turmoil has dented Romania's credibility, with the United States and EU expressing doubts about the left-leaning government's respect for the independence of the judiciary. Critics accuse Prime Minister Victor Ponta, himself the subject of a plagiarism scandal, of orchestrating the move as part of a power grab.
Parliament, dominated by allies of Mr Ponta, impeached Mr Basescu earlier this month, setting up yesterday's national referendum on his future. Polls closed last night.
With 18 million Romanians eligible to vote, including many living abroad, turn-out after seven hours of voting was just 21.37 per cent, according to the Central Election Bureau.
Most voters are expected to vote to remove Mr Basescu, but it is uncertain whether the government can muster the necessary turnout to make the result binding. "There are bandits on both sides, and I can't be bothered to vote," said Vlad Tanasescu, 34. "All they want to do is to take revenge on each other."
However, some said it was time for Mr Basescu to be removed from office. "I am not happy with what is happening to the country, the economy, all the political scandal and the corruption," said Cristian Neagu, 28, a computer programmer.
Mr Basescu has been President since 2004. He was impeached in 2007 but survived a national referendum. He is a centre-right politician, though as President he is not allowed to be a member of any party.
Unlike presidencies in some European nations, Mr Basescu's position is not merely ceremonial. He is elected in a popular vote and is in charge of foreign policy, names the chiefs of the powerful intelligence services and is in charge of the country's defence policies.