By ALISON MUTLER, Associated Press
BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's President Traian Basescu says he's on "Mission Impossible" to save democracy in this former Communist country.
His opponents hope he's on an impossible quest to save his job.
As Romania holds a referendum Sunday on impeaching Basescu, the ugly political battle has raised questions about the rule of law in the fledgling EU member. It comes against the background of similar concerns about shaky democracy across Eastern Europe, in countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria and Serbia that are striving to join the European mainstream.
Basescu's rivals are seeking to impeach him for the second time in five years.
They claim the 60-year-old populist former ship captain violated the constitution by meddling in government business, coddling cronies and using the powerful secret services against enemies. Basescu says the impeachment process is a political vendetta carried out by opponents plotting to seize control of EU funds and the country's justice system.
The political turmoil has dented Romania's credibility, with the U.S. and the 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.
The political instability began when Ponta became premier on May 7 following the collapse of two pro-Basescu governments. Ponta's government quickly moved to remove both speakers of Parliament and replace them with politicians from the governing coalition. Parliament then suspended Basescu himself.
Observers say Ponta is using the same strong-arm tactics seen during communism.
"In the Communist days, the governments relied on force and fear to enforce their authority rather than a democratic process and the rule of law," said Nick Hammond, a long-term British resident lawyer. "What they don't understand is the old ways have to be shaken off."
It's a complaint heard throughout the region.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been criticized repeatedly for allegedly circumventing democratic norms. Last week, the EU called on Bulgaria to step up efforts to root out high-level corruption and organized crime. In Serbia, the appointment of the wartime spokesman of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic as prime minister has caused concern about democratic backsliding.
Basescu, who easily survived an impeachment referendum in 2007, now faces the toughest political fight of his life, with his most powerful asset — popularity with voters — gone.
"I think that Basescu should go, he has betrayed our trust and lied too much" said Malin Petrica, a 65-year-old security agent. "Will the other lot be better? I'm not sure. All we can do is hope. That's what us Romanians do, we hope."
The latest crisis was triggered after former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, a longtime Basescu rival, was imprisoned for two years on corruption charges in June. That raised political tensions as Basescu's political enemies reportedly plotted to unseat the president in revenge.
In a bid to survive, Basescu has apologized for his outspokenness and sometimes bawdy remarks. He has urged his supporters to boycott Sunday's referendum in order to nullify it by a low turnout. The government says Basescu's plea is evidence of his undemocratic behavior.
The crisis has pushed the national currency, the leu, to an all-time time low, hitting millions of ordinary cash-strapped Romanians. As reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund stall, Romanians have been fed on a daily diet of mutual mudslinging between the two camps.
"The principal culprit (of the current crisis) is the Romanian political class — a lamentable bunch — who put personal gain above the country's interests," said Dennis Deletant, professor of Romanian Studies at University College, London who has written several books about Romania's turbulent political history.
"No credible 'serious violations of the constitution' have been brought forward, which makes the impeachment process suspect in the eyes of many foreign observers."
Basescu, who was first elected in 2004, has seen his ratings drop due to tough austerity measures implemented in 2010 to meet the terms of a 20 billion euro ($24 billion) IMF-led loan. His divisive style of governing has not helped his cause. But the campaign to unseat him has drawn strong criticism from the West.
"I am still very much worried about the state of democracy in Romania and so is the (European) commission," Viviane Reding, vice president of the EU's executive commission, said this week. "We will look at the facts, not at the (government's) promises. We will look at the laws and the implementation of those laws."
If, however, the referendum passes with the necessary turnout of more than 50 percent, Brussels is likely to accept the result.
Ponta's government scored well in June local elections, easily defeating Basescu's Democratic Liberal Party. It seemed poised to win parliamentary elections in the fall. But the abrupt removal of both speakers of parliament, the country's ombudsman and a series of emergency ordinances aimed at facilitating impeachment dented its credibility at home and abroad.
Ponta has also been embroiled in a scandal involving accusations that he plagiarized his doctoral thesis, claims his camp says were driven by Basescu.
Some ordinary Romanians say they the whole political opera has turned them off politics.
"I have stopped even thinking about it. They all steal, some more and some less," said Silvia Geambas, 29, who hand-crafts jewelry. "I have given up voting because they are not worth it. What we need are better roads, not all of this fighting."
AP Writer Slobodan Lekic contributed to this report from Brussels.