Cablegate: The Uninominal Experiment: The Election Campaign

DE RUEHBM #0418/01 1501522
P 291522Z MAY 08




E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/29/2018

Classified By: Polcouns Theodore Tanoue for 1.4 (b) and (d)

1. (C) Summary: Romanians prepare to go to the polls June 1 to elect mayors, local and county councilors–and, for the first time–the heads of the county councils. A recent visit to witness the electoral campaign in Maramures and Satu Mare counties underscored that local leaders are still adapting to the new uninominal rules. Our interlocutors expressed concern that county council presidents sitting at the apex of executive, parliamentary, and party influence at local levels may be increasingly less amenable to the control and influence of central authorities. Local party organizations have also adapted to the new electoral game by encouraging prominent defections from rival parties, forging noncompetition agreements, and by creating ad hoc alliances very different from the ones existing at national levels. End Summary.

The Uninominal Experiment

(C) Many observers have noted that the introduction of new electoral rules was adopted hastily without a thorough assessment of the consequences, including on electoral behavior and impact on governance at local and national levels. The municipal and county elections will be the first under the new uninominal voting rules. For the first time in Romania,s post-communist history, the presidents of county councils will be elected directly by the voters and will no longer be chosen through smoke-filled back-room negotiations in local councils. During a recent two-day visit to electoral districts in Maramures and Satu Mare counties, Poloffs encountered many local officials and MPs who expressed unhappiness with recent changes. Cristian Anghel, the National Liberal Party (PNL) Mayor of Baia Mare, a city some 400 miles north of Bucharest, said that additional legislative amendments were urgently needed in order to sort out the responsibilities of the heads of county councils in accord with their new electoral mandates. Anghel complained that the uninominal reforms were hastily adopted without due consideration of the inconsistencies introduced by a system where a county council head is concurrently both the chief of the executive branch at the county level and a member of the parliamentary organ as well–an inconsistency at odds with the constitutional principle of the separation of powers. Anghel said that the Romanian constitution itself was silent on the matter, creating a lapse which might leave the way open for a challenge to the uninominal rules on constitutional grounds.

Triple-Hatted Local Barons

(C) Our interlocutors also worried that direct election of county council presidents would enhance their already considerable powers and would make them less controllable by–or accountable to–their national party leaderships. The heads of the county councils will represent real centers of power, especially given the increasing funds (both from national coffers and from the European Union) being disbursed at the local level. Thus, county council presidents will be key players at the intersection of both local and national politics. We were told that, in many cases, incumbent county council heads are also concurrently leaders of the local party branches, meaning that these local “Barons” will increasingly represent the apex of local legislative, executive, and political party power bases. One contact–Maramures County PSD deputy Dan Mihailache–admitted to Poloffs that a number of influential PSD local leaders and incumbent county councils presidents had indeed pushed hard for the new uninominal electoral rules, given that direct election would enhance their political power and legitimacy.

Party Loyalties are Fungible

(C) The new electoral rules have also impacted on campaign strategies at the local level. Previous electoral campaigns prominently featured incumbent mayors and mayoral candidates as the center-stage protagonists. However, we frequently witnessed that parties at the county level are now pairing their candidates for mayor of the county capital alongside the candidate for the head of the county council as co-equals. Moreover, given that the heads of county councils are now elected on a one-round first-past-the-post basis, local parties appear to have adopted new strategies to maximize their chances of victory, most notably through encouraging prominent defectors from other parties. In Buzau, for example, the outgoing PDL county council president has now become a PSD candidate. Similarly, the incumbent PSD county council president in Olt has become a PNL candidate and the outgoing PSD county council head in Iasi has recently switched alliances to the PD-L. We encountered one PD-L mayor in Targu Lapus who was formerly PSD, and one PSD deputy who was formerly a close advisor of PNL Vice President (and concurrently Defense Minister) Melescanu.

All Politics will be Local

(C) Leaders of the local party branches, including Sighetu Marmatiei Mayor Eugenia Godja told us that they expect a greater say in the selection of candidates for Parliament this fall and that they will be less accepting of party candidates being “parachuted” in at the convenience of the party center. One such “parachute” candidate, PSD deputy Dan Mihalache, told us that the advantage that the PSD formerly had because of its unparalleled party network and large “reserve bench” of political talent had been to some extent neutralized by the new electoral rules. He was spending the majority of his time in his new constituency (rather than in Bucharest) and his challenge was to strengthen his relationship with local party barons and to establish his “local” bona fides in time for the fall parliamentary elections.

Noncompetition Agreements and Other Sweet Deals
——————————————— –

(C) Our interlocutors also noted that in contrast to the apparent no-holds-barred politics at the national level, local politics in Romania is increasingly characterized by back-room agreements and other cooperative behavior between ostensibly rival political parties. To maintain the facade of competition, parties reportedly have enlisted mock candidates for positions where they have small chances of winning, in return for having rival parties put up token competition for other positions. Media reports have suggested that such agreements have been reached in Vrancea and Neamt between PSD and PDL; in Braila between PNL and PSD; in Cluj and Arges between PDL and PNL; in Vaslui between PSD and PRM; and, with some variation, in other counties as well (including Bacau, Constanta, Sibiu, and Ilfov). There appears to be a PSD-PDL-PRM protocol in Mures which provided for joint support for the incumbent PD-L mayor of Targu Mures in exchange for PD-L support for a PSD candidate for the Mures county council,s presidency. Moreover, the Romanian press has noted that Mures may be the only county in Romania where former Prime Minister (and PSD leader) Adrian Nastase can still attend rallies where he can be cheered on by members of the pro-Basescu PD-L. Similarly, PNL general secretary Dan Motreanu told Poloffs May 23 that PNL local leaders are willing to cooperate before and after the elections with PD-L rather than with PSD, suggesting that in some parts of the country, the D-A alliance between the two parties remains very much alive.

Ethnic Politics

7. (C) Ethnic politics also remain very much alive as a factor in local politics. In Satu Mare, the PSD reportedly took the lead and convinced the PD-L and five other parties to support a nominally “independent” candidate, former journalist and prosecutor, Valer Marian, for the head of the county council. Marian is facing Csehi Arpad, the UDMR local leader, an accountant and former director in the Satu Mare county council. Marian and Csehi emphasized to Poloffs in separate discussions that the competition has been intense and characterized by virulent virulent mud-slinging and even blackmail and threats. Csehi told us that in his county the UDMR had buried the hatchet with the rival Magyar Civic Party in order to increase the chances for an ethnic Hungarian to win the mayoral race.

8. (C) Comment: Our quick visit to the electoral hinterlands and our soundings of political contacts here in Bucharest have underscored that uninominal electoral reform has indeed led to some devolution of power and initiative from the center to the periphery, with parties relying increasingly on local branches and elected officials to carry the weight of the municipal election campaign. Our contacts at the national level have tacitly accepted this reality when they admitted that they have allowed their local leaders to forge cooperation and noncompetition agreements with rival parties. We found, too, strange combinations of political bedfellows–PNL and PD-L, PSD with PD-L–for example, that seemed to work fine at the local levels. One local NGO—the Public Policy Institute–told us that the proof that noncompetition was the theme of this year’s municipal races was the fact that media buys–newspaper ads for example, were less than half of what they were during equivalent municipal elections in 2004. Whether this spirit of cooperation will have a salutary effect on Romania’s zero-sum politics at the national level or whether it will inject another element of corruption and back-room dealing into Romanian politics remains an open question. End Comment.


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