179273 11/20/2008 14:48 08BUCHAREST906 Embassy Bucharest CONFIDENTIAL P 201448Z NOV 08 FM AMEMBASSY BUCHAREST TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 8929 INFO EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY C O N F I D E N T I A L BUCHAREST 000906
STATE FOR EUR/CE
E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/20/2018 TAGS: PGOV, PREL, RO SUBJECT: PNL, PSD LEGISLATORS: BASESCU'S GOT THE MOJO IN NAMING PM, FORMING NEW GOVERNMENT
Classified By: DCM JGuthrie-Corn, 1.5 (b) and (d)
1. (C) Summary: In separate conversations, two prominent legislators--one PSD, the other PNL--noted signs of an incipient PSD stampede to form a post-election coalition with Basescu's PD-L. They agree that the PSD cannot stay out of office for another four years and has to join the next government at all costs. Both suggested that President Basescu might offer an ostensibly "technocratic" Prime Ministerial candidate and insist on formation of a "national unity" government to deal with an impending economic crisis. They were doubtful that parliamentarians--exhausted after a month-long election campaign--would be enthusiastic about holding a divisive vote to suspend the President, and would be loathe to reject Basescu's second-round choice for PM (which would trigger new elections), given their reluctance to return to the hustings for yet another campaign. End Summary.
2. (C) PSD Legislator Victor Ponta told Polcouns on November 17 that voter apathy and the absence of an overarching campaign theme meant that the default parliamentary election strategy this year was a time-consuming and expensive door-to-door campaign. He said the 2008 race was five times more expensive than in 2004. Ponta credited President Basescu as "more clever" in tapping into popular anxieties about the economy, with well-timed recent visits to local automobile factories including the Dacia and Ford plants. Asked about other leaders, Ponta replied acidly, "I haven't seen Geoana for a while," adding that Prime Minister Tariceanu appeared to be too busy "drafting plans for Romania in 2020." He said that Tariceanu's campaign missteps--including his opposition to raising teacher salaries--conveyed a sense of lame-duck "deja vu" reminiscent of PM Nastase's waning days in office in 2004.
3. (C) On the possible formation of a PSD-PNL government, Ponta remarked that "There's no way to make it happen now except to suspend the President. That would be suicidal as it makes Basescu the unbeatable candidate next year." While some PSD leaders, including Chamber of Deputies PSD whip Viorel Hrebenciuc, were still insisting on a coalition with the PNL, the growing mood in PSD ranks was that the party could not afford to remain out of office for another election cycle. Moreover, local party leaders were also aware of the benefits of incumbency and were pressuring the party center to join the next government at all costs. Ponta said that informal inter-party discussions were already taking place (Note: this was confirmed in some press reports today), and remarked that a PSD-PD-L coalition would be an "unbeatable" combination, with 70 percent of parliamentary seats between them. Ponta joked that only two PSD leaders were against the option--"(Former President) Iliescu because he's too old, and me because I'm too young." Ponta added that another reason why a PSD-PNL government was less likely now was because many of Tariceanu's PNL rivals would do better in opposition, remarking that if Tariceanu continued to head the party, PNL heavyweights Crin Antonescu, Ludovic Orban, and Norica Nicolai would be "dead" politically. They are less hungry than we are, he concluded. (Note: Orban in a telcon today confirmed this, saying that a "temporary" time in opposition would have a purifying effect on the PNL.)
4. (C) Noting the President's penchant for the surprise move, Ponta speculated that Basescu might propose a lesser-known figure as PM to keep his opponents off-balance. Asked whether current intelligence service head George Maior fit this description, Ponta responded that Maior was a good choice--clean and confirmable, with a good relationship with the Basescu and Tariceanu camps and with the PSD as well. Basescu's ability to play the Maior card helped pressure other PSD leaders including Mircea Geoana to be more compliant. Ponta said that Geoana's main objective now was to ensure that no other PSD leader was promoted above him. Ponta predicted that "Geoana will settle, he's not Basescu." He speculated that Geoana's bottom line would be Deputy Prime Minister (and concurrent Foreign Minister) as long as the next government was headed by a nominally "technocratic" Prime Minister.
5. (C) Ponta said that if the election results conformed to the polling data, the PSD and PD-L could split the ministerial posts equally, with the bargaining being over which party controlled which ministry. He acknowledged that he was the party's front runner to be the next Justice Minister in any coalition involving the PSD. He said he was aware that current Justice Minister Predoiu wanted quick passage of the new Criminal Code draft now being circulated, but predicted that this was a decision for the next government. He added that Romania needed "radical reform" of its judiciary and legal system, and this was only possible if the next coalition enjoyed a strong parliamentary majority. Asked about the prospects for quick formation of the next government, Ponta replied that--after an exhausting campaign--the last thing that politicians wanted was the prospect of a long, drawn-out battle over the next government. Nobody wanted a hung parliament and a return to another round of elections, and nobody wanted Tariceanu to linger on indefinitely as head of a caretaker government. "Everything will be finished before Christmas, and Basescu gets the final word," he concluded.
6. (C) In a separate meeting with Polcouns November 18, PNL legislator (and PNL Central Bureau member) George Scutaru said that it had been a tough, exhausting, and expensive door-to-door campaign. He was walking 6 to 10 kilometers every day in his Buzau constituency. It was a challenge because it was a traditionally "red" (e.g., PSD) district, and the PSD had reneged on its pre-campaign agreement with his party not to compete in his district. Scutaru said that Justice Minister Predoiu was a PNL candidate in a neighboring precinct, and that his rival--a PSD businessman--had already spent over a million leu in order to win the contest, adding that the businessman was currently under indictment and his main motive was to win a seat in order to acquire parliamentary immunity.
7. (C) Scutaru acknowledged that various parties were now beginning to talk about future coalitions, but insisted that the serious bargaining would take place only after the election results came in. He said that Basescu was the wild card and that "everything is now possible." The scenario currently making the rounds was that Basescu intended to nominate Teodor Stolojan as Prime Minister for the first round--with the full expectation that the nomination would fail to win parliamentary approval. Basescu would then put forward a "technocratic" choice--perhaps SRI head George Maior or SIE Director Razvan Ungureanu as his second round nominee, and would argue that the impending economic crisis necessitated the formation of a national unity government.
8. (C) Scutaru opined that this gambit had a good chance of succeeding. Convincing individual party leaders one by one into joining an ad hoc coalition was more likely now as the uninominal electoral rules may well have a corrosive effect on party discipline. Moreover, party discipline would be at an especially low point immediately after the elections, given the turnover in senior positions and the view of many incoming (and senior) parliamentarians that "I got here on my own." Scuataru added that the threat of new parliamentary elections also made it unlikely that Basescu's second choice for PM would be rejected, and said that PSD leader Adrian Nastase's recent threat to order PSD legislators to boycott parliament in order to prevent formation of a new government was "not serious."
9. (C) In response to Polcoun's query as to whether a PSD-PNL move to suspend President Basescu was now less likely, Scutaru responded that Basescu was now in the "center of the game" thanks to the constitution and "everything depended on him." He noted that Basescu's PD-L had adopted a more accommodating tone with his party, and was no longer insisting on Tariceanu's departure as a precondition for a PD-L-PNL coalition. He acknowledged that the PSD was "hungry for power" and needed to get back into the game at almost any cost. Scutaru mused that the PNL could go into opposition to establish its bona fides as the only credible center-right party, but added quickly that the preference for any party was to be in government. Asked whether SRI Director Ungureanu's nomination for PM would be acceptable to the PNL, he replied, "it depends on what else is on the table."
10. (C) Comment: It was clear from our conversation with our interlocutors that a PSD-PNL coalition is no longer as likely an option as it was a few weeks ago, and that enthusiasm is waning in both parties for the drastic option of suspending the President in order to ensure that an acting President would nominate a Prime Ministerial candidate from their ranks. Moreover, the PD-L's long-held confidence that the Romanian constitution puts the President squarely in the driver's seat in terms of naming the next Prime Minister appears to have been well placed. Nevertheless, despite recent favorable polling data, a PD-L romp in the upcoming parliamentary election is no sure thing, given that its largely urban middle-class electoral base may well decide to stay at home (or to leave town) in droves on an election date--in the middle of a three-day holiday weekend--that was specifically chosen in order to depress voter turnout. End Comment.