By Isabelle Wesselingh (AFP)
BUCHAREST — Romania's cabinet prepared Saturday for a referendum to decide if President Traian Basescu is impeached, after parliament cleared the way for the crucial vote amid a storm of international criticism.
A total of 256 out of 432 lawmakers voted Friday in favour of impeaching the centre-right president, paving the way for the national referendum to be held July 29.
The vote followed a series of controversial moves including the sacking of the ombudsman and both speakers of parliament that have sparked warnings that the EU state's democracy is under threat.
With Basescu officially suspended from duty, Crin Antonescu, 52, of the National Liberal Party, one of the two main components of the governing Liberal Social Union coalition, has been appointed acting president.
A bitter feud between Basescu and his arch-rival, 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.
Ponta, who heads the Social Democrat Party, barely concealed his delight at Friday's vote, telling his cabinet the government would now be able to act freely.
"Now all of the obstacles that have got in the way since our government came to power are gone," he said.
"We are going to have to prove that we can function well now that we don't have to worry about any objections to the decisions we take."
Basescu, a former sea captain, is facing impeachment over claims he improperly assumed the powers of the prime minister when he announced drastic austerity cuts in 2010.
Romania, badly hit by recession, had 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.
Basescu, whose popularity has plummeted since the deal, "is facing the toughest moment of his career," said Florin Negrutiu, a columnist at online newspaper Gandul.
"Never has he faced such hatred from the people."
If voters decide to impeach Basescu -- who is in his second term of office, due to end in 2014 -- it will trigger a presidential election.
But the defiant president, who survived a previous impeachment attempt in 2007, wrote on his Twitter account Friday: "Armed with the truth and the constitution, let's have a referendum."
Ponta's centre-left coalition, in office only since May, 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.
In addition to firing the parliamentary speakers and ombudsman, the government also threatened to sack Constitutional Court judges.
The drastic actions sparked worries in the West, led by the United States and the European Union, that Ponta's government is eroding democracy in its campaign to oust the 60-year-old Basescu, who first took office in 2004.
The pan-European rights body, the Council of Europe, said Saturday that it had tasked one of its expert panels, the Venice Commission, to determine if Romania was respecting democratic principles.
Council Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland said in a statement, "I am very concerned about the recent developments in Romania, especially about actions taken by the Government and the Parliament in respect of key democratic institutions."
The Venice Commission's chief Gianni Buquicchio condemned Wednesday what he said were attempts by the government to pressure the Constitutional Court and erode its independence.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said earlier, "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.
"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 Dutch government shares the concerns as voiced by European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso," said Christophe Kamp, spokesman for deputy foreign minister Ben Knapen, who deals with European matters.
"It is important that Romania take into account their Constitution and existing laws," he said in an email to AFP Saturday.
"We are keeping a close eye on the situation," Kamp added.
France, Germany and several rights groups have also expressed concern at the events in Romania.