By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)
BUCHAREST — Romania's parliament has voted to impeach President Traian Basescu in a spiralling 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 favour of the move against the centre-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 centre-left 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 the ombudsman and threatened to sack judges of the Constitutional Court, the nation's highest court.
The United States 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, who first took office in 2004.
"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," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
"As the government contemplates the serious step of removing Romania's head of state, we urge that the process be conducted in a fully fair and transparent manner, with scrupulous respect for the rule of law and democratic ideals," Nuland said.
"The United States stands with our EU partners and urges that Romania uphold and protect the common values and principles that unite the European and trans-Atlantic community of nations," she added.
The European Union 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.
"The rule of law, the democratic checks and balances and the independence of the judiciary are cornerstones of the European democracy and indispensable for mutual trust within the European Union," warned the European Commission.
The turmoil comes only days after a scandal involving Ponta who was found to have plagiarised parts of his PhD thesis.
It 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 Friday that "my family, my children have been threatened". He added that he had asked for help from the authorities and did not feel in danger.
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, a former sea captain, over claims he improperly assumed 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 including public sector wage and benefit cuts in return for a multi-billion-dollar bailout from the European Union and 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 in 2011, when some commentators likened their alliance to that between a camel and an ostrich, a Romanian byword for "improbable".
Ponta's cabinet sparked widespread concern with a decree Wednesday barring the Constitutional Court from ruling on parliamentary decisions -- removing what could have been an obstacle to Basescu's impeachment.
The court in a rare statement this week complained of "virulent attacks" against some of its judges whom the government was threatening to sack.
The government withdrew its complaints against the judges but then adopted an emergency order curbing the court's powers.
Other controversial moves have included sacking the opposition 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.
The Constitutional Court judged Friday that Basescu had indeed committed some breaches of his prerogatives but no violations of the constitution.
Germany has voiced "deep concern" over the developments, saying the Constitutional Court's "independence and ability to take action must not be questioned".
Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said Berlin would "closely consult" with its EU partners on Romania's bid for full membership of the visa-free Schengen zone, which is up for review in September.