Romanian president Traian Basescu delivers a speech in front of the Romanian Parliament in Bucharest
Romania's parliament voted Friday to impeach President Traian Basescu in a spiralling political crisis that has raised warnings in the West that the country's democracy is under threat.
A total of 256 lawmakers out of 432 voted in favour of the move against the centre-right Basescu, according to an official count, but the impeachment will only take effect if approved in a referendum within 30 days.
The bitter feud between Basescu and his arch-rival, the centre-left Prime Minister Victor Ponta has thrown Romania into its worst crisis since it emerged from communist dictatorship two decades ago.
Western powers have voiced fears 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.
This week, Ponta's ruling Liberal Social Union (USL) coalition fired the speakers of both houses of parliament and the ombudsman and threatened to sack judges of the Constitutional Court.
The United States and European Union as well as France, Germany, the Council of Europe and several rights groups, including Freedom House and the Helsinki Committee, have all expressed concern.
"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 political crisis in one of Europe's poorest countries has seen the leu currency nosedive in recent days.
Ponta has sought to allay Western fears, pledging to travel to Brussels next week to "give assurances" to the bloc which Romania joined in 2007 under Basescu.
Lawmakers 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.
Romania, then badly hit by recession, agreed to tough belt-tightening -- including unpopular 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 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".
He accused the USL of trying to "control all the levers of the state, especially the judiciary".
Senate speaker Crin Antonescu of the USL has been appointed interim president.
Ponta's cabinet sparked widespread concern when on Wednesday it approved a decree barring the Constitutional Court from ruling on parliamentary decisions -- removing what could have been an obstacle to Basescu's impeachment.
The court made a rare statement this week complaining 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.