By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian prosecutors charged Deputy Prime Minister Liviu Dragnea on Monday with orchestrating a campaign of bribery, threats and fraud to try to swing a vote to impeach President Traian Basescu.
The July 2012 referendum came as Dragnea's leftist Social Liberal Union (USL) tried to oust the center-right Basescu, accusing him of improperly blocking government policies.
The European Union and Washington have condemned the efforts to unseat Basescu, saying they erode the rule of law in the EU state.
The referendum yielded an 88 percent majority in favor of removing Basescu, who is unpopular for backing austerity measures and for perceptions of cronyism, but the turnout failed to reach the required threshold of 50 percent of all registered voters and was invalidated.
The anti-corruption prosecutors said Dragnea, who was then his party's secretary general, abused his power with a campaign to lure Romanians to voting stations. They said his followers offered money and sometimes used threats to swell the turnout.
When those failed, the prosecutors said, they forged voting papers. Prosecutors have charged 74 other people in the case.
"Dragnea coordinated a complex machine in which he involved other people over whom he had influence because of his position, with the purpose of distorting the election turnout results," the prosecutors said in a statement.
Dragnea, a 50-year-old career politician who was elected to parliament's lower house last year, has denied the charges, calling them absurd.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta backed him up and accused the prosecutors of taking their orders from Basescu.
"This is a political case. We knew it would happen. Traian Basescu ... threatened there would be cases," Ponta told reporters. "I am convinced judges will reject the accusations."
Hearings in the case are due to start next year.
The EU has the country's justice system under special monitoring, an embarrassing situation for the country which joined the wealthy bloc in 2007. Romania is outside the visa-free Schengen area and a bad report from the EU would help prolong its exclusion.
In July this year, then Transport Minister Relu Fenechiu was handed a five-year prison sentence for corruption, becoming the country's first cabinet minister convicted while in office.
(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)