BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's interim president on Tuesday signed a new law that requires a majority of registered voters to take part in a referendum for it to be valid, giving suspended President Traian Basescu a fighting chance of remaining in office when his impeachment comes up for a public vote.
The former communist country appeared to be signaling to the European Union that it is addressing concern about the state of its democracy, a key issue as it tries to attain greater privileges within the regional bloc, including access to its passport-free zone.
Basescu was impeached by Parliament on grounds he overstepped his authority by meddling in government business and the judicial system. Critics accuse Prime Minister Victor Ponta of orchestrating the move as part of a power grab, and 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.
On Tuesday, the national currency, the leu, fell to a new record low against the euro.
The law enacted by interim President Cris Antonescu could help Basescu survive the July 29 referendum because it is uncertain whether the turnout will be high enough for the vote to be valid. Basescu, a 60-year-old former ship captain, has become increasingly unpopular in recent years due to austerity measures.
He denies having committed "grave violations" of the constitution and says that even if Romanians vote against him, he will stay in office if turnout is lower than half. On Tuesday he accused "irresponsible people" in the ruling coalition of having the "sole aim of gaining absolute power... They want to take Romania back to the 90s" when its credibility was low, he said.
In Brussels, the EU said it welcomed the action. And late in the day, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, issued a statement saying it had received a letter from Ponta — the second in two days — and was now satisfied that the prime minister had made written commitments on the 11 points of concern the Commission had raised regarding the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
The statement said that "effective and speedy implementation" was now crucial.
Antonescu said he personally had doubts about the law, approved by the constitutional court last week, and added that he had come under pressure both in Romania and abroad to ensure there is a requirement for a minimum turnout.
The British embassy said in a statement Tuesday that Foreign Secretary William Hague had met Ponta in Bucharest, where Hague was given assurances that the government would respect rulings made by the constitutional court and would organize the referendum based on the court's ruling. Romanian Lawmakers from the governing party wanted the vote to take place over two days to secure a higher turnout and greater chance of ousting Basescu.
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 figures from the governing coalition. Parliament then impeached Basescu.
Slobodan Lekic and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.