The Romanian parliament has voted to impeach Romanian President Traian Basescu in a spiraling political crisis, with the US warning that the EU country’s democracy is under threat.
A total of 256 lawmakers out of 432 voted on Friday in favor of the move against the center-right Basescu, according to an official count, and he could be definitively ousted from power after a national referendum to be held within 30 days.
In the meantime, Crin Antonescu, 52, of the ruling Liberal Social Union (USL) has been appointed interim president.
The bitter feud between Basescu and his arch-rival, the center-left Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, 39, has thrown Romania into its worst crisis since it emerged from communist dictatorship just over two decades ago.
This week, Ponta’s USL coalition fired the speakers of both houses of parliament and replacing the ombudsman — who has the sole power to contest decrees and emergency orders — with a USL member and threatened to sack judges of the Romanian Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest judicial body.
The US led Western concern that Ponta’s coalition government, which took office only in May, has been eroding democratic checks and balances in its campaign to oust the 60-year-old Basescu.
“We are concerned about recent developments occurring in Romania, our NATO ally and partner, which threaten democratic checks and balances and weaken independent institutions, such as the courts,” US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
The EU as well as France, Germany, the Council of Europe and several rights groups, including Freedom House and the Helsinki Committee, also expressed concern at events in Romania.
Germany has voiced “deep concern” over the developments, saying the Constitutional Court’s “independence and ability to take action must not be questioned.”
The turmoil comes only days after a scandal involving Ponta, who was found to have plagiarized parts of his PhD thesis, and also follows a bitter feud between the premier and the president over which one should represent Romania at European summits.
In a sign of the heightened political tensions, Ponta said after the vote on Friday that “my family, my children have been threatened.”
The political crisis in one of Europe’s poorest countries has seen the the currency nosedive in recent days.
Ponta has sought to allay Western fears over the health of its democracy, pledging to visit Brussels next week to “give assurances” to the bloc which Romania joined in 2007 under Basescu.
Lawmakers in the early evening voted to impeach Basescu over claims he improperly used the powers of the prime minister when he announced drastic austerity cuts in 2010.
At that time Romania, badly hit by recession, agreed to tough belt-tightening measures including public sector wage and benefit cuts in return for a multi-billion dollar bailout from the EU and the IMF.
In parliament ahead of the Friday’s impeachment vote, Basescu rejected the charges and said the campaign against him had violated the rule of law and put at risk “the stability and reputation of the country.”
Ponta, a lawyer, and the new interim president Antonescu, a historian and former museum curator, first joined forces last year, when some commentators likened their alliance to that between a camel and an ostrich, a Romanian expression for “improbable.”