The Romanian Referendum Battle: A President Hangs On

The Romanian Referendum Battle: A President Hangs On

In a high-stakes referendum held last month, Romanian President Traian Basescu won an important vote of confidence from the Romanian electorate. Although the holding of the referendum was duly noted in the international media, surprisingly little was said about the stakes involved for Romania: a young post-Communist democracy and new EU member state that found itself precipitated into an unprecedented constitutional crisis by an attempt to oust the president that clearly resembled a parliamentary coup. Basescu's first two years in office had been distinguished by an aggressive anti-corruption campaign designed to meet the expectations of Romania's European partners and by the resolute assertion of Romania's place in transatlantic security structures and, in particular, its ties to the United States. As he entered his third year in office, having successfully ushered Romania into the European Union in January 2007, he was by all accounts and measures a highly popular president. This fact had as much to do with the former sea captain's laidback style and plain-speaking manner as with his policies. But he had evidently also made many enemies and, in April, in a move of questionable legality, a large majority of parliamentarians voted to suspend him from his functions as a prelude to his removal from office.

In the May 19 referendum, the Romanian people were asked to confirm the Parliament's decision -- and refused. Asked to respond to the question "Do you agree to the removal from office of President Traian Basescu?" 74.5 percent of voters voted "no." Despite Basescu's popularity, the outcome of the referendum was hardly a foregone conclusion. A series of measures adopted by the Parliament appeared to have been designed to put the president at a disadvantage and limit the expression of the popular will. The low turnout of 44.5 percent was in part the result. Although well-known to the Romanian public, these details were largely ignored by the international media and even -- with the notably exception of a statement by the American Ambassador in Bucharest -- by Romania's international partners.

From a Clash of Personalities to a Constitutional Crisis

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