Cablegate: November 25 Euroelections: High Apathy, Low Turnout, Big Stakes
PP RUEHDBU RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHBM #1296/01 3251608
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 211608Z NOV 07
FM AMEMBASSY BUCHAREST
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7628
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 BUCHAREST 001296
DEPT FOR EUR/NCE
E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/19/2017
TAGS: PREL PGOV RO
SUBJECT: NOVEMBER 25 EUROELECTIONS: HIGH APATHY, LOW TURNOUT, BIG STAKES
Classified By: Political Counselor Ted Tanoue for Reasons 1.4 (b) and ( d).
1. (SBU) Summary: Romanians go to the polls Sunday to vote for representatives to the European Parliament and to decide a referendum on electoral system reforms proposed by President Basescu. Most observers anticipate low voter turnout, despite initial hopes in the President's camp that the injection of the referendum issue would help raise voter interest. The election results nevertheless will have a major political impact, not least because this is the first real test of voter support since 2004, and will likely set the tone for a series of four upcoming consecutive elections-local, parliamentary, EP, and presidential contests-taking place over the next 24 months. Party insiders in the PSD and PNL have confirmed that negotiations are underway over the formation of a "Tariceanu III" cabinet, with the PSD joining the PNL in a coalition government. Both sides are awaiting the final vote results as they haggle over ministerial seats. Other possible second-order effects of Sunday's contest are leadership changes in the PSD and PNL party hierarchies and the fates of the pro-Basescu PLD, the ethnic Hungarian UDMR, and Gigi Becali's right-nationalist PNG. End Summary.
Public Unenthusiastic About Two-for-One Vote ---------------
2. (SBU) Romania will hold its first elections for the European Parliament on November 25. While initially scheduled for May 13, the EP contest was repeatedly postponed for a number of reasons, including the tense domestic political climate after the suspension of President Basesculast April and the subsequent desire of many political parties to defer any electoral showdown given the overwhelming popularity of President Basescu. For the first time, Romanians will directly elect their 35 representatives to the European Parliament. This direct vote replaces a provisional system employed since Romania's January 1, 2007 accession into the European Union, where Romania was represented in the European Parliament by 35 parliamentarians chosen from party lists in accordance with their respective parties' shares of domestic parliamentary seats. The term in office of the newly elected Members of the European Parliament (MEP) will be a short one, lasting only until the next EP elections scheduled for the Spring of 2009.
3. (SBU) President Basescu has injected an additional layer of complexity by calling a referendum on reforming the current electoral system, to take place on the same day as the EP election. Basescu's critics have accused the President of doing so in order to inject himself into the political hustings and to lend his coat-tails to candidates from the Democratic Party (PD) and the Liberal Democrats (PLD). Voters have the opportunity to answer "yes" or "no" to the question: "Do you agree that, starting with the first legislative elections, all the deputies and senators be elected in uni-nominal constituencies, on the basis of a majoritarian two-round system?" Although scheduled on the same day as the EP race, the Tariceanu government has ensured that the referendum will be a completely separate process, entailing voting in different precincts administered by separate electoral bureaus and counted by different teams of electoral officials. Analysts expect the complicated double-voting process on election day to lead to confusion and a low turnout.
4. (SBU) Thus far, the electoral race has been marked by an uninspired campaign by a slate of mostly unknown EP candidates. Public apathy is reflected in IRI polls indicating that only 5 percent of respondents were "very interested" and 32 percent somewhat "interested" in the Euro-elections. With five back-to-back elections taking place over the next two years (including local elections in June 2008, legislative elections scheduled for November 2008, EP races in Spring 2009, and a Presidential contest in November 2009), most major political parties are saving their powder for future races and have eschewed expensive electronic media campaigns. Instead they have relied on small rallies, leaflets, door-to-door campaign, and other low-cost (and low impact) campaign techniques. The PNL campaign, for example, featured yellow-jacketed cyclists weaving through Bucharest's treacherous traffic in bicycles adorned with campaign posters. Vote fraud has not been a major concern, perhaps reflecting the overall public apathy regarding the race. The electoral watchdog Pro Democracy Association has told Embassy that it will mobilize 1,000 election observers, mainly in rural areas.
5. (C) Recent media polls and data shared with us by various contacts show surprising consistency. The PD appears poised to take some 35-40 percent of the votes; the PSD is running at around 18-22 percent; and the PNL currently shows a support rate of some 12-15 percent. This likely translates to some 10-15 seats for PD, 7-8 seats for the PSD, and 5-6 seats for the PNL. Four other parties have prospects for crossing the 5 percent electoral threshold, including the Greater Romania Party (PRM), the Democratic Union of Hungarians from Romania (UDMR), and two parties not currently represented in parliament-Gigi Becali's New Generation Party (PNG) and the Liberal-Democratic Party (PLD).
6. (C) Voter mobilization may become the critical factor. The UDMR campaign is running scared, given the independent campaign of Reformed Bishop Laszlo Tokes, who may split the ethnic Hungarian vote. UDMR deputy Mate Andras confided that his party's own polling indicated that they currently have between 4.2-4.5 percent, with Tokes drawing around 1 percent.
Similarly, this is a make-or-break test for the nascent PLD.
With polls suggesting that they are pulling in between 4 and 5 percent of the votes, the PLD is pulling out all the stops in mobilizing supporters through events featuring PLD heavyweights including former Prime Minister Stolojan, legislators Christian Boureanu, Raluca Turcan, former Agriculture Minister Gheorghe Flutur, and former PNL President Valeriu Stoica. The two pro-presidential parties-)PD and PLD-have also stressed the Basescu connection, including campaign rallies with the President. The PD message has touted the election as a coming-out event for a "new political class", in line with Basescu,s message that an affirmative uni-nominal referendum vote will change the way that Romania's future leaders are selected. PSD contacts have warned that intra-party infighting has led to many local party branches opting out from actively engaging in the campaign.
Negotiations Intensify for a possible PNL-PSD Cabinet
7. (C) This will be the first real electoral test since the legislative elections of November 2004, and after three turbulent years of domestic political infighting all parties will soon know exactly where they stand with the voters. Whatever the party, a positive outcome in the EP elections will be a good omen for the upcoming local and national elections. More directly, the election will influence the formation of a possible "Tariceanu III" cabinet in the aftermath of the elections. PNL Vice President Dan Motreanu confirmed to Polcouns that negotiations are underway, adding that the real bargaining would not take place until after the election results are in. A poor showing for the PSD-which he defined as anything less 25 percent-would likely result in Mircea Geoana's ouster as PSD President. He added that the election was a test for the PNL too, as any result below a ten-percent threshold would increase pressures on Prime Minister Tariceanu to resign, or for his party to split. Motreanu demurred when asked whether Tariceanu supported going into coalition with the PSD, remarking that many PNL supporters were reluctant to ally with a party that was the PNL's ideological opposite. Motreanu also noted the divided state of the PSD, and asked rhetorically, "which PSD do we ally with?" He concluded that current polls suggested that the likely outcome would simply be continuation of a status quo that many political players were quite comfortable with.
8. (C) PSD legislator Victor Ponta said that PSD President Geoana was now exhorting the party leadership to "get ready" to join in governance with the PNL on the 26th of November. PNL elders including former President Iliescu, former PM Nastase, and legislative heavyweight Viorel Hrebenciuc were all supporting the coalition option. Ponta remarked, however, on the different factional and personality cross-currents now coming into play. Within the PNL, for example, many of the Ministers likely to be replaced-Interior, MFA, Education, and Justice, were individuals close to Chamber of Deputies President Bogdan Olteanu. Tariceanu was reluctant to let these ministers go out of concerns that this might precipitate a break with Olteanu (and with Olteanu's oligarch backers, including Iasi businessman Relu Fenechiu). Similarly, said Ponta, it was a sign of Geoana's weakened stature in the PSD that Tariceanu wanted to negotiate directly with Iliescu and Nastase, rather than to deal with Geoana. Interpersonal rivalries were also at work in the PSD. Geoana's main backer now was "Cluj Group" head Ioan Rus, but Rus opposed a closer alliance with the Liberals. He added, however, that given their mutual electoral weaknesses vis-a-vis Basescu, one issue which might help "cement" a PSD-PNL partnership was their shared interest in passing legislation postponing the 2008 local and parliamentary races until the following year.
9. (C) Asked about negotiations over cabinet positions, Ponta echoed Motreanu in remarking that any real horse-trading would take place only after the election results came in. Current discussions touched on dividing two current Ministries-Interior/Administrative Reform and Finance/Economics into four separate ministries to create more bargaining chips. Ministries on the PSD's "wish list" included the Agriculture and Labor Ministries. Geoana had also indicated that he wanted the position of Deputy Prime Minister, but was wavering on whether he might concurrently assume the Foreign Ministry portfolio. Geoana's dilemma was that if he took the MFA portfolio, pressures would increase for him to step down as PSD party head; if he didn't do so, then Cristian Diaconescu (who is increasingly seen as a possible Geoana's successor) would seek the FM slot. Finally, Ponta remarked that, as the PSD's expert on judicial issues, he should rightly be a candidate for the Justice Minister portfolio. He noted, however, that when party seniors met to discuss possible ministerial appointments, Vrancea County PSD baron Marian Opresan reportedly remarked, "Victor? No way, he'll send us all to jail..."
10. (C) Comment: Despite widespread public apathy, this may well turn out to be an important election. Historically, the PSD has always held pride of place as Romania's leading political party. However, Basescu's PD appears poised to surpass-and perhaps double-the PSD's vote share. Moreover, despite the uncertain fate of uninominal electoral reform, this election will likely confirm the pre-eminence of the three mainstream political parties (PD, PNL, and PSD) and the precarious situation now being faced by the smaller parties including the PLD, UDMR, and perhaps even Vadim Tudor's right-extremist PRM, which is facing new competition from Gigi Becali's New Generation Party (PNG). End Comment.