Opinion polls show two-thirds of Romanians are expected to vote in favour of impeaching 60-year-old Traian Basescu, once one of the country’s most popular politicians whose ratings plummeted amid austerity cuts in 2010.
In case turnout is lower than 50 percent, Basescu, suspended by parliament earlier this month, will be reinstated and continue his mandate, which ends in 2014.
“I came to vote to say ‘down with Basescu’,” said Dumitru Cristea, a retired 61-year-old, outside a polling centre in central Bucharest.
“He’s done nothing but harm to the country, cutting wages, raising taxes on retirement income. He’s attacked little people like us instead of taking on the rich,” he said.
Another voter, who gave her name only as Maria, said she would not vote for impeachment, “even if Basescu isn’t perfect. Because I’m very worried to see what the ruling centre-left are doing. They have broken many rules for this impeachment, they’ve reshuffled the entire administration to put in their cronies; it’s worrying.”
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 are eligible to vote, including large diasporas in Spain and Italy.
Seven hours after polls opened at 0400 GMT turnout stood at 21 percent, or about six points below the rate recorded at that time in June local elections, which had a final turnout of 56 percent.
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.
“I went to the beach in the morning and then I voted,” said Radu Florin, 43, owner of a construction company, on his way out from a makeshift polling station in the southeastern resort of Mamaia.
“The right to vote is fundamental: if we don’t turn out, others will decide for us,” he added.
Hundreds of others like him, including some clad in bathing suits, showed up to vote in between dips in the water.
Romania, which joined the European Union in 2007, has been gripped by a bitter feud between the conservative president and 39-year-old Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s Social-Liberal Union (USL), which took power in May and quickly moved to oust Basescu.
The USL put up banners around Bucharest reading, “Go Vote, Impeach Him”.
“We must not forget that we cannot install solid and lasting democracy without the votes of as many people as possible,” interim president Crin Antonescu said Friday.
Basescu and opposition Liberal Democrats have meanwhile called on voters to boycott a referendum they say would “legitimise a coup”. They claim the ruling coalition plans to rig the vote.
Basescu said last week that he was willing “to govern with the current majority to ensure the country’s stability”.
If the yes vote triumphs and Basescu is permanently removed from power, Romania will have to organise a fresh presidential election.
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.
The editor of Romania Libera (Free Romania) broadsheet, Dan Turturica, wrote Sunday that failure to respect democratic rules could leave Romania in “a no-man’s land … marginalised in the EU and shunned by foreign investors.”
Last week analysts said civil society groups had been forgotten in the political fray and needed to become involved to help get the derailed political process back on track.
The first results are expected Monday.