Romania's unpopular president was fighting for his political life on Sunday as the country voted on whether to oust him, part of a political battle that has raised questions about the rule of law in the fledgling European Union member. Early indications were that he might keep his job due to a low voter turnout.
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, coddling cronies and using the secret services against enemies.
Basescu, a former ship captain whose popularity has plummeted over economic challenges, says 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.
At 8 p.m. (1700 GMT), three hours before polls were to close, the turnout was just 37.67 percent, according to the Central Election Bureau. That was lower than June local elections when the turnout was about 56 percent. On Sunday, 18 million Romanians were eligible to vote, including many living abroad.
Basescu told reporters he was at peace with himself. "I have done my duty as president in a manner that sometimes pleased people and at other times did not please a large number of Romanians," he said.
The political turmoil has dented Romania's credibility, with the U.S. and European Union expressing doubts about the left-leaning government's respect for the independence of the judiciary.
Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, last week issued a stern statement expressing "serious concerns about recent political events in Romania in relation to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the role of the Constitutional Court."
Critics accuse Prime Minister Victor Ponta, himself the subject of a plagiarism scandal, of orchestrating the move to oust Basescu as part of a power grab.
The coalition of Social Democrats and Liberals led by Ponta did very well in June local elections, but Ponta's popularity has declined after he was accused of plagiarizing large sections of his 2004 doctoral thesis, accusations subsequently upheld by a Romanian academic panel. The latest political turmoil has also dented his government's popularity.
Parliament, dominated by Ponta allies, impeached Basescu earlier this month, setting up Sunday's national referendum on his future.
The relatively low turnout came as Romanians baked in a heat wave with temperatures hitting 38 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit ) in the capital. Many took refuge in mountain resorts, others flocked to the Black Sea beaches, while shopping malls in Bucharest were unusually busy for a hot summer Sunday.
Most of those who did show up to vote were expected to cast a ballot in favor of ousting Basescu.
"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 who wants Basescu gone.
Other Romanians said they were disgusted by the whole ordeal.
"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."
Basescu has been president since 2004. He was impeached by Parliament in 2007 for "serious violations" of the constitution, but survived a national referendum.
He is a center-right politician, though as president he is not allowed to be a member of any party. Unlike presidencies in some European nations, Basescu's position is not merely ceremonial. He is elected in a popular vote and is in charge of foreign policy and the country's defense policies. He also names the chiefs of the powerful intelligence services.
Over the past two years, Basescu has seen his approval numbers drop largely because the government introduced austerity measures to meet demands by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a multibillion euro (dollar) loan. Public wages were cut by one-fourth and sales tax raised to 24 percent, one of the highest in the EU.
Ponta heads the left-leaning Social Democratic Party. He became prime minister May 7, the third in four months after the previous two were ousted over austerity measures. Unlike his predecessors who were deferential to Basescu, Ponta has moved instead to sideline Basescu and his allies.
Ponta says that Basescu's confrontational style of governing and interfering in the justice system and government business are evidence that he is unfit for the job. He also alleges that charges that he plagiarized his 2004 doctoral thesis are orchestrated by Basescu's camp.
The Foreign Ministry opened polling stations in embassies in the United States, Italy, Spain, France and elsewhere where an estimated 2 million Romanians are eligible to vote.