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BUCHAREST - Romanian President Traian Basescu faced an impeachment vote Friday in a spiralling political crisis that has brought warnings from the country's EU partners that its democracy is under threat.
Basescu's arch-rival Prime Minister Victor Ponta sought to allay the widespread fears, pledging to travel to Brussels next week to "give assurances" to the bloc that Romania joined in 2007.
Lawmakers were set to vote in a session beginning at 1400 GMT on a motion to impeach Basescu over allegations that he improperly assumed the powers of the prime minister when he announced drastic austerity cuts in 2010.
The ruling centre-left Liberal Social Union (USL) coalition accuses Basescu of violating the constitution, while critics fear the government wants to take over the judiciary.
The power struggle is one of Romania's worst political crises since it emerged from a brutal dictatorship little more than 20 years ago.
The EU, France, Germany, the United States and the Council of Europe, as well as independent rights groups, have all expressed concern about attacks on democracy in Romania, particularly on the independence of the Constitutional Court, the country's top judicial body.
"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," the European Commission said Friday.
"Recent developments may be putting at risk the progress made over the years," it warned.
Bucharest's international partners have "legitimate concerns," Ponta said, while insisting that Romania "will remain a stable country in which the rule of law, the constitution, European and international standards will be respected."
He said he was prepared to allow Romania's European and international partners to "evaluate" the controversial measures his government has taken against the centre-right Basescu.
"The political battle will not affect the judicial system," Ponta said, adding that his government would "assure the stability and independence" of the courts and would respect "all the decisions of the constitutional court."
However, Ponta's cabinet on Wednesday approved a decree barring the Constitutional Court from ruling on parliamentary decisions -- removing a possible obstacle to Basescu's impeachment.
The Constitutional Court had made a rare statement the previous day complaining of "virulent attacks" against some of its judges whom the government was threatening to sack.
Other controversial moves have included removing the opposition speakers of both houses of parliament and quashing the role of ombudsman -- who alone had the power to contest government decrees and emergency orders.
Germany on Friday reiterated its "deep concern," saying "the Romanian constitutional court's independence and ability to take action must not be questioned."
International rights campaigners The Helsinki Committee and Freedom House have also joined the chorus of criticism.
Ponta said Friday the government "will not back or initiate any change of personnel" -- but key posts to be filled include the new heads of the public prosecutor's office and anti-corruption office.
If approved by parliament, any move to impeach Basescu must be voted on in a referendum within 30 days.
Basescu's popularity has plummeted because of the austerity measures he enforced in 2010 in agreement with the EU and the International Monetary Fund.
The last centre-right government fell in May following a no-confidence vote, paving the way for Ponta to come to power.
Basescu's second and final mandate normally ends in late 2014.