BUCHAREST, Romania – Romanian lawmakers impeached President Traian Basescu in an overwhelming vote Friday, paving the way for a national referendum that could see the divisive and increasingly unpopular leader ousted from the powerful position he's held for eight years.
The vote of 256-114 in parliament came as Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta have engaged in a bitter power struggle in the eastern European country of 19 million, which emerged from communism in 1989. The machinations, especially attempts to sideline the judiciary, have led the United States and the European Union to issue statements of concern about Romania's democracy.
Basescu's opponents accused him of overstepping his authority by meddling with the prime minister's office and trying to influence judicial affairs. The 60-year-old former ship captain also was accused of making racist remarks about Gypsies and disabled people.
Senate Speaker Crin Antonescu, who will serve as interim president now that Basescu has been effectively suspended from the role, said a popular referendum on Basescu's fate will be held July 29.
Basescu was impeached in 2007 but survived a referendum. Still, his popularity has declined steeply, and he faces tougher odds this time.
One major reason is that the Ponta-led government changed the law this week to make it easier to oust Basescu from office. Now, a simple majority of votes cast is needed to push him out. Before, a majority of all voters in Romania was required.
Upon hearing of the impeachment, hundreds of Romanians rallied in downtown Bucharest to cheer the news, while others gathered to express their disappointment.
Basescu vowed late Friday to use "all constitutional resources" to stay in office for his full five-year term, which ends in 2014, and called his impeachment "an abuse."
He denied abusing his power, but defended his outspokenness and active participation in political life. He had earlier defended himself against the allegations of making racist and disparaging comments by saying he has the right to free speech.
"The elected president cannot be a mute," Basescu said in a speech at the presidential palace. "He has to assume responsibilities."
Unlike presidencies in some European nations, Basescu's position is not merely ceremonial. He is elected in a popular vote and is in charge of foreign policy, the powerful intelligence services and the country's defense policies.
Basescu claims that he steered Romania through the financial crisis that engulfed it in 2008, has improved ties with Moldova, which was part of Romania until 1940, and has made Romania a reliable partner of NATO and of the United States.
Basescu is a center-right politician, though as president he is not allowed to be a member of any party.
Ponta, 39, heads the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, and became prime minister on May 7. He is the third Romanian premier in four months, and, unlike those who have held the role over the past decade, Ponta has not been deferential to the president. Instead, he has move quickly to sideline Basescu allies.
Earlier this week, Romanian lawmakers ousted the speakers of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies — the two houses of parliament. Both were allies of the president, and they were replaced with supporters of the prime minister, including Antonescu.
Also this week, Ponta issued a decree reducing the powers of the Constitutional Court with regard to its ruling on parliamentary laws. Also in recent weeks, Ponta ignored the Constitutional Court's ruling that Basescu, not he, should represent Romania at a European Union summit.
Those actions and others have prompted statements of concern from world powers.
The European Commission, the executive body of the EU, on Friday called on the Ponta's government to respect the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law, calling them "the cornerstones of European democracy" and essential for "mutual trust" within the EU.
U.S. Ambassador Mark H. Gitenstein, also has expressed concern about threats to the "independence of democratic institutions" in Romania.
In apparent reference to these concerns, Ponta said authorities would ensure that the referendum on Basescu was organized in a legal manner.