By Radu Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's suspended President Traian Basescu said on Sunday the ruling party's drive to force him from office was an attempt to protect some of its lawmakers from corruption investigations.
European Union leaders have criticised leftist Prime Minister Victor Ponta for his campaign to oust Basescu, his long-time political rival. They accused him of failing to protect the rule of law and democratic institutions.
Ponta and his Social Liberal Union (USL), backed by a vote in parliament, earlier this month suspended Basescu for 30 days. A national referendum due on July 29 will decide whether the president will be impeached.
"My suspension was a long-planned move ... and was done to protect would-be convicts in Romanian politics," Basescu told private television station Realitatea TV in an interview.
"In the suspension vote (in parliament) there were 19 lawmakers under criminal investigation, let's call them would-be candidates for jail," he said, without elaborating.
Ponta accuses Basescu of blocking government reforms and abusing his position to grant favours to his allies and to interfere in the judicial system.
Basescu's Democrat-Liberal opposition allies have said the plan to drive him from power was a retaliation to the conviction of former prime minister Adrian Nastase, a senior member of Ponta's USL, in a landmark corruption trial in June.
The row has rattled markets, sending the Romanian currency to a record low last week, and raised fears the EU's second-poorest state may be faltering in its march to catch up with the richer West.
On Friday, a day after EU leaders expressed concern over the state of democracy in Romania, Ponta said he had responded in writing to a list of demands from the European Commission which included banning any pardoning decrees during the interim presidency.
But he balked at giving a clear signal on whether he would work to undo both an emergency government decree and a separate law scrapping a 50 percent turnout threshold for referendums.
All eyes are now on a tangle of legal statutes that have blurred the referendum rules, most importantly over the minimum turnout requirement.
Basescu would have a better chance of avoiding impeachment with the threshold rule in place, because many in the country of 19 million people could stay away, making the vote invalid.
Parliament, which is dominated by Ponta's USL, will discuss the referendum legislation on Tuesday and Wednesday and will also consider extending the voting to two days.