Romania's Traian Basescu, who said he survived an impeachment vote after voter turnout apparently fell short of the 50 percent required to validate the referendum, is an ex-sea captain portraying himself as a reform fighter but labelled a tyrant by opponents.
First elected president in 2004, he steered his country into the European Union five years ago, a historic step for this former communist dictatorship.
Re-elected for another five-year term in 2009 in a surprise run-off victory, he pledged to "modernise Romanian society" while acknowledging that his planned reforms of the state would run into stiff opposition.
"It is much easier to steer a ship because at least then everything works according to the rules," he told AFP.
The centre-right Basescu was suspended early July pending Sunday's referendum on his impeachment amid one of Romania's worst crises since the fall of communism in 1989.
Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta, his centre-left rival, were locked for three weeks in a fight to the finish that has raised questions about Romania's democratic credentials.
Ponta ally Crin Antonescu, chosen as interim president earlier in July, was expected to succeed Basescu had his impeachment been confirmed.
After referendum polls closed Sunday, Basescu said that Romanians had rejected a "coup".
"Romanians have rejected the coup staged by the 256 lawmakers led by Victor Ponta and Crin Antonescu.
"Romanians have decided their fate by invalidating the referendum."
The central electoral bureau said provisional figures showed that turnout stood at 45.92 percent, short of the 50 percent threshold needed for the result to be validated by the constitutional court.
Once considered one of Romania's most popular politicians, Basescu has seen his ratings plummet amid austerity cuts imposed in 2010. Opinion polls had showed that two out of three Romanians would vote for his ouster.
Not a conventional political operator and seeming more at ease among public crowds than fellow heads of state, Basescu was born on November 4, 1951 in Basarab, close to the Black Sea.
For years, under the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, he was the representative of the Romanian merchant fleet in Antwerp, Belgium.
But he scored points with voters when he became the first Romanian president to officially condemn the regime's crimes in a famous speech in December 2006, despite heckling by some deputies.
After the dictatorship fell in 1989, Basescu became transport minister and then mayor of Bucharest, winning two terms before being elected president in 2004.
Basescu says that as president he has pushed justice reforms demanded by the EU, including judicial independence. Foreign diplomats mostly applauded his commitment to fighting corruption.
For his second term, he pledged to continue to reform the state, even at the expense of the political class, which he never failed to criticise for its desire to hang on to its privileges.
But critics have accused Basescu of doing as he pleases and of polarising society at a time when Romania, a democracy for just over two decades, needs stability.
Some of the intellectuals who supported him in 2004 have backed out, disappointed by the feuds he sparked.
"He did not act as a mediator between the different institutions", lawmakers of the centre-left majority told parliament earlier this month, accusing him of improperly assuming powers the president should not hold.
And Liberal Party leader Antonescu has called him a "tyrant".
Since 2007, when Basescu faced his first impeachment referendum, his popularity has plunged, notably because of the austerity measures he enforced in agreement with the EU and the International Monetary Fund.
Last winter, he pushed one of the most respected Romanians of the post-communist era, emergency service founder Raed Arafat, to resign because he did not agree with him on one aspect of a vast health reform.
The move triggered thousands of people to take to the streets and Basescu was forced to admit the "blunder". Arafat was taken back into the government.
He also acknowledged losing support when his younger daughter Elena was elected to the European parliament in June 2009, triggering rumours that she had received large support from her father's former party.
The media dubbed her the "Paris Hilton of the Carpathians", after the US socialite best known for her privileged, hedonistic lifestyle.