BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — 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. The machinations, especially attempts to sideline the judiciary, have drawn statements of concern from the European Union and the United States.
Basescu’s opponents accused him of overstepping his authority by meddling in government business and legal affairs. The 60-year-old former ship’s 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.
Unlike presidencies in many other 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 heads 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.
Earlier Friday, Basescu addressed lawmakers and denied accusations of authoritarian actions. Regarding the allegations of racist and other disparaging comments, Basescu counters that he has the right to free speech and cannot be impeached merely for his statements.
Earlier 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 Romanian allies.
The European Commission, the executive body of the EU, on Friday called on the left-leaning 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.
The U.S. ambassador to the country, 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.