By Radu-Sorin Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's ruling party elected an interim leader on Wednesday to replace Prime Minister Victor Ponta who quit the post last month pending a criminal investigation.
The person elected to lead the leftist Social Democrats (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, has himself been convicted of electoral fraud and was handed a one-year suspended jail sentence earlier this year, with an appeal to be held in late September.
Dragnea, 52, a former regional development minister
and one of Ponta's closest allies, won 65 votes to 18 in a ballot of senior party members.
Ponta was charged on July 13 with forgery and serving as an accessory to tax evasion and money laundering, further tarnishing the image of the ex-communist state as it struggles to shake off its reputation for graft.
That reputation has deterred foreign investment since communist rule collapsed in 1989, with the European Union keeping it and neighboring Bulgaria outside its passport free Schengen zone.
Ponta says he is innocent and has called the charges, dating from before he became prime minister, politically motivated.
Seen by many as likely to replace Ponta permanently at a congress that should happen in November, Dragnea said: "Victor Ponta will be backed by all party members, headed by me."
"We are an united party that can overcome smaller or larger crises."
Ponta has withstood intense political pressure from the opposition and from President Klaus Iohannis, a centrist rival who defeated him in last November's presidential election.
Protected by a comfortable majority in parliament, ensured by two junior allies, he has survived three opposition censure motions, the most recent last month.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)