190198 2/3/2009 15:26 09BUCHAREST63 Embassy Bucharest CONFIDENTIAL P 031526Z FEB 09 FM AMEMBASSY BUCHAREST TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9161 INFO EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY C O N F I D E N T I A L BUCHAREST 000063
STATE FOR EUR/CE
E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/02/2019 TAGS: PGOV, PREL, KJUS, RO SUBJECT: SENIOR PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR LAZAROIU: OPRESCU IS THE THREAT, NOT GEOANA
Classified By: CDA Jeri Guthrie-Corn for 1.5 (b) and (d)
1. (C) Summary: Senior Presidential Advisor Lazaroiu noted that--despite a beating from the press--recent internal polling data underscored that the Boc cabinet's approval ratings compared well with those of the first Tariceanu cabinet. President Basescu's overall favorability ratings remained high at 51 percent, although Bucharest Mayor Oprescu was now a close rival at 48 percent. He acknowledged tensions in the PDL-PSD coalition, but predicted the government would survive intact until the year-end Presidential elections. Lazaroiu acknowledged that PSD head Geoana was trying to leverage his position in the Supreme Defense Council (CSAT) into a self-appointed "co-Prime Minister" role. Lazaroiu observed acidly, however, that the decision to seat Geoana on the CSAT was constitutionally tenuous, and "what we gave him, the Constitutional Court can easily take away." End Summary.
2. (C) At a meeting with Polcouns February 1 Senior Presidential Advisor Sebastian Lazaroiu discussed the results of an omnibus opinion survey recently commissioned by Cotroceni palace. The results were unexpectedly positive given that the Boc cabinet--created amidst a drumbeat of steadily worsening economic reports--had taken a beating in Romania's media. Despite having had no "honeymoon" period, the "trust" ratings of the new cabinet (e.g., the response to the query: "which institutions do you trust the most?") were nevertheless comparable to those of the first Tariceanu cabinet in 2005, with 32 percent favorable ratings compared to 31 percent for Tariceanu. Nothing to boast about, he conceded, but still a sign of "normalcy" amidst the financial crisis. (note: The Orthodox church and military remained the highest-ranked institutions in Romania, at 79 and 64 percent, respectively.)
3. (C) Lazaroiu said that Basescu's overall favorability ratings remained high at 51 percent compared to Prime Minister Boc at 39 percent; former PM Tariceanu at 34 percent; and PSD head Geoana at 31 percent. The big surprise was Bucharest Mayor Oprescu's high favorability ratings--48 percent--which now rivaled Basescu's. It was clear from the polling that Oprescu was now Basescu's biggest threat, not Geoana. Nevertheless, when it came to voter intentions, Basescu easily outpaced Oprescu 50 percent to 21 percent, with the most likely PSD candidate--Adrian Nastase--bringing in only 8 percent. Similarly, the PDL continued to outpace the PSD in support among likely voters--40 percent to 36 percent.
4. (C) Lazaroiu acknowledged that Basescu's alliance with the PSD had been received negatively by some diehard PD-L supporters, as evidenced by a drop in his support rate among PDL voters from 84 percent to 81 percent. He argued, however, that this was more than offset by increases in his support among voters identifying themselves with other major parties, including a jump from 26 percent to 41 percent among PSD supporters; 39 percent to 41 percent among PNL supporters, and a boost from 43 percent to 52 percent among UDMR voters. Asked whether the year-end Presidential election would be determined by party organization or favorability ratings, Lazaroiu opined that it was the latter: it was ultimately a one-on-one popularity contest. In the end, it came down to whether voters preferred a strong, decisive "Sea Captain" during the economic crisis or a candidate--Oprescu--who connected with voters as being "sympathetic, sincere, and close to the people."
5. (C) Lazaroiu said that there were already signs of tensions within the governing coalition, including indications that the PSD might try to reach out to the PNL delegation in order to override the PDL on budget allocations. He added that despite the continuing haggling over the budget, the two sides recognized that the government ultimately had to live within its means. Nevertheless, he said, the current PDL-PSD coalition was likely to survive intact until the Presidential elections which would--one way or another--end the current coalition formula. Whatever the outcome, he concluded, we will lose the "stable balance" in the coalition after the election. Asked whether PSD head Mircea Geoana was positioning himself as a potential rival to Basescu, Lazaroiu confirmed that Geoana was indeed trying to position himself as a "co-Prime Minister", including leveraging on his position as the deputy Chair of the Supreme Defense Council (CSAT) alongside traditional institutional heavyweights including the Ministers for Foreign Affairs, Defense, Interior, and the Intelligence chiefs. Lazaroiu insisted that the poll numbers suggested that Geoana faced an uphill battle in making himself a credible Presidential candidate. Even if he succeeded, insisted Lazaroiu, "the decision to seat Geoana in the CSAT was always constitutionally shaky; what we gave him, the Constitutional Court could easily take away" he said. He confirmed, however, that Geoana had consolidated his hold of the PSD and had begun sidelining some of the party's powerful traditional "barons."
6. (C) Lazaroiu said that re-election was Basescu's main focus this year. His biggest challenges were to avoid creating the image that he was "all powerful" and hence should take full responsibility for Romania's dire economic straits. Secondly, he needed to convince voters that his accomplishments in office merited another term. Lazaroiu said his polling data suggested that Basescu had found the "right tone" with voters on the first question: 14 percent of voters thought the President had "too few" powers; 25 percent said he was "too powerful"; and 53 percent said he had "just enough" powers. He acknowledged that avoiding creating the impression of Presidential "overreach" was a constraint on Basescu's ambitions. For example, Basescu wanted to amend the electoral code in order to create a more majoritarian two-party system but was loathe to do so to avoid creating the image of a "too powerful" President. Moreover, he added, only a tiny fraction of voters--around 2 percent--really knew or cared how the complicated voting system worked in practice.
7. (C) Lazaroiu said that the President needed to demonstrate that he could successfully "guide the ship" in the coming economic storm. Basescu was helped, he said, by the public's perception that the situation would continue to worsen in the coming year: 80 percent of respondents said that crime would go up this year; 91 percent thought poverty would increase; 95 percent thought food costs would go up. "Apocalypse" he quipped, "is good for us." He added that he was not optimistic about prospects for constitutional reform in an election year; the best he could hope was to begin the public debate in preparations for a new jump-start after the election.
8. (C) Lazaroiu was more upbeat on prospects for educational reforms and lifting the EU's monitoring regime of Romania's justice sector. Justice Minister Predoiu had a "good credibility" and a "good relationship" with the European Commission and passage of new criminal codes and parliamentary approval to indict former Prime Minister Nastase would be forthcoming evidence that Romania was serious in tackling corruption. He acknowledged that Nastase was fighting for his political survival and was pulling every string to block the prosecutors. Nevertheless, he argued, the evidence against Nastase was compelling and--more importantly--the PDL controlled the key Justice Committee chairmanship that would control the agenda on this issue. It will be a tough battle, he concluded, but we'll win this one.
9. (C) Comment: After four years of nearly constant squabbling with his last Prime Minister, President Basescu has little to show for his tenure outside of his still-high approval ratings and his political survival. Basescu will be eager to achieve a more concrete legacy this year in the run-up to the Presidential election. While "change" has not been the leitmotif in Romanian politics yet, Lazaroiu is probably correct in assessing Bucharest Mayor Oprescu as Basescu's main threat this year. Oprescu may emerge as a formidable potential rival to Basescu, as he has managed to out-Basescu the President in terms of projecting a positive, populist appeal. Basescu's dilemma is that the more he tries to project himself as being in charge, the more he may wind up taking the blame--as well as the credit--for how well things go this year. End Comment.