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Romanian president reinstated; opponents protest

Romania's top court on Tuesday ruled that the impeachment vote of president Traian Basescu was invalid. While the move allowed Basescu to be reinstated, Prime Minister Victor Ponta criticized the ruling.

Basescu, who was impeached in a July 29 referendum, has been locked in a bitter political battle with Prime Minister Ponta, his political rival. The power struggle has been interpreted by some outside analysts as a test of Romania's democracy two decades after the violent overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

According to news agency Mediafax, the judges' decision was adopted with a majority vote of six to three, a margin Ponta had previously stated was the bare minimum for him to accept the court's decision.

"I took note of the court decision and as previously announced, we will obey the decision," said Crin Antonescu, a co-leader of Ponta's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL). Antonescu had been serving as acting president in Basescu's absence.

Yet while Antonescu said the USL would accept the court's decision, Ponta stated he does not - though he will abide by it.

"The Constitutional Court's ruling was illegal, unjust and politically motivated," Ponta told a press conference. He added that he felt the decision was "contrary to democratic rules ... and violated legislation." He also pledged to "continue to defend Romanians from a repressive and oppressive regime."

Basescu, a former oil tanker captain and president of Romania since 2004, had previously accused Ponta of attempting to stage a coup and take control of independent institutions. The political battle has sent Romania's currency, the leu, to record lows, and hurt investor confidence.

Basescu's impeachment, originally launched by Ponta, required a 50 percent turnout to be binding. However, only 46 percent of the eligible electorate took part - leading to the need for the constitutional court to rule on the vote's validity.

"We stated that the referendum quorum condition was not met," chief judge Augustin Zegrean told reporters.

A decision by the court was originally due August 2, but was delayed due to the highly charged nature of the decision.

Power struggle

A photo dated July 22, 2012 shows Romanian suspended President Traian Basescu gesturing during a media briefing in Bucharest, Romania. Romania's Constitutional Court delayed a decision on the validity of a referendum on impeaching the president.

Basescu was also temporarily suspended in 2007

The conservative Basescu had become unpopular to some Romanians due to wage cuts and tax hikes in 2009 and 2011 brokered under two financing deals with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

With a population of around 19.5 million, Romania is the second-poorest member of the European Union. In the first quarter of 2012, the country dipped into a recession as a result of the political turmoil.

"Basescu's political survival would suggest that tension with Prime Minister Victor Ponta will continue, with the potential for a renewed escalation later on in the year," said Otilia Simkova, an analyst with the Eurasia group, referencing parliamentary elections to be held in November. "Continuing political tension and forthcoming elections are not conducive to coherent policymaking."

The power struggle has been seen by some as hurting Romania's democracy. The European Union has in the past accused Ponta of undermining the rule of law and intimidating judges.

Basescu was also temporarily suspended from the presidency in 2007. A national referendum back then allowed him to remain in office.

bm/pfd (AFP, dpa, Reuters)