Cablegate: Romania: Teacher Wage Hike Delayed, but Political Battle Continues As Market Analysts Fret
PP RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHBM #0838/01 3041537
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 301537Z OCT 08
FM AMEMBASSY BUCHAREST
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 8834
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 BUCHAREST 000838
STATE FOR EUR/CE:ASCHEIBE AND EEB/IFD
TREASURY FOR LKOHLER
E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/30/2018
TAGS: ECON EFIN ELAB PGOV RO
SUBJECT: ROMANIA: TEACHER WAGE HIKE DELAYED, BUT POLITICAL BATTLE CONTINUES AS MARKET ANALYSTS FRET
REF: BUCHAREST 789
Classified By: Charge d’Affaires Jeri Guthrie-Corn for Reasons 1.4 (B) and (D).
1. (SBU) The Government of Prime Minister Calin-Popescu Tariceanu threw down the gauntlet with public sector unions on October 28 by issuing an emergency ordinance that postpones implementation until April 1, 2009 of the new law granting teachers a 50 percent salary increase (reftel). The ordinance was the final legal option for the GOR to avoid paying the huge increase, after an initial challenge to the constitutionality of the law was dismissed by the Constitutional Court and appeals from the Government to President Traian Basescu not to sign the law fell on deaf ears. (Basescu approved the law on October 26.) The teachers’ union, backed by other public sector unions, is studying how to respond. Initial statements from union leaders indicate they may mount a legal challenge to the emergency ordinance. They also threaten that work stoppages by government employees, possibly to include a general strike, are likely in the run-up to November 30 parliamentary elections.
2. (SBU) The Prime Minister, joined by National Bank of Romania (BNR) President Mugur Isarescu, has steadfastly insisted that Romania cannot afford the massive wage hike for the country’s half million teachers at this juncture,particularly in light of similar demands from other public sector workers. The GOR reacted to Basescu’s approval of the law by posting on-line the content of official communications to the Presidency asking that he not sign it; the GOR had asserted to Basescu that the increase would cost nearly five billion lei (about one percent of GDP) through the end of 2009 and would force additional big increases in government health care and pension obligations for teachers. Predictions were even more serious if this were to be followed by similar hikes for other public sector workers.
3. (C) Predictably, opposition leaders seized on the emergency ordinance to score political points. Basescu called the action a “non-justified, non-democratic gesture,” while his spokesman, Valeriu Turcan, dismissed the GOR’s predictions of negative fallout as “apocalyptic” and “merely intended to manipulate public opinion.” Basescu went on to attack Tariceanu’s government as neglecting education and health care, adding that he believes health care workers deserve a big salary increase as well. (Comment: Basescu’s posturing seems a bit too politically convenient in light of the fact that, when the teacher salary bill first passed the Parliament, the President called for “prudence and moderation” in public sector spending. End comment.) PD-L and PSD party leaders have said they would push for a parliamentary vote to overturn the emergency ordinance, though the pre-election legislative calendar to consider such a motion is rapidly running out. PD-L leader Emil Boc also vowed to introduce a censure motion of the Government in Parliament, though the PSD indicated they would not support it. Critics of the PNL accused Tariceanu of hypocrisy on budget issues, pointing to recent scandals like a GOR agreement to buy 1,800 new police cars for 78,000 euros apiece, a “markup” of more than 60,000 euros over the list price.
4. (SBU) International analysts’ reactions to the budget row have been uniformly negative. IMF representative in Romania Juan Fernandez Ansola called on Romanian officials to reconsider the salary hike, saying it would send “the wrong signal” to financial markets in a delicate period. Standard and Poor’s also cited the budget issue as a key factor in downgrading Romania’s sovereign credit rating to below investment grade on October 27. GOR and BNR officials have publicly protested S&P’s move. BNR Vice Governor Cristian Popa insisted to reporters that the rating agency should have taken some positive factors into account, such as the fact that Romania’s public debt as a percentage of GDP has actually dropped from a year ago and that BNR’s reserves are sufficient to cover over 90 percent of the debt stock.
Romanian leaders are clearly incensed at becoming the only EU member state with a “junk status” credit rating despite their belief that economic fundamentals are better here than in Hungary and the Baltics.
5. (SBU) Further complicating the financial picture, Tariceanu’s Cabinet on October 28 approved the GOR’s draft budget law for 2009, which will now go to Parliament. Reflecting strong growth performance since last January, the bill projects a 54.6 percent increase in tax revenues, 47.8 percent increase in expenditures, and 8.4 percent increase in value of the deficit in 2009 over 2008, but also projects that the deficit as a share of GDP will decline from 3.0 to 2.2 percent. Included in the budget is a 10 percent salary increase for all public workers and a projected increase in average retirement pensions of around 25 percent. Spending on education, health care, and transport infrastructure is slated to rise, though the portion of each as a share of GDP will be basically flat. The draft budget contains no provision for the separate, 50 percent wage hike for teachers. The budget is based on projections of 6 percent GDP growth, 4.5 percent annual inflation, and an average exchange rate of 3.6 lei to the euro in 2009 (all of which are highly optimistic).
6. (C) Comment. The current face-off over wages is a complex mix of budgetary realities and pre-election political maneuvering. By using emergency powers to defy the law and kick the teacher salary issue into next year, PM Tariceanu has incurred the wrath of public sector unions and some level of labor unrest will likely result. Even with the opposition of these workers at the ballot box now virtually assured on November 30, however, the net political fallout for the PNL may not be as bad as it seems, as many average Romanians are not sympathetic to complaints from teachers and other public workers that they deserve huge pay increases. Unless opposition parties succeed in getting Parliament to overturn the emergency ordinance before the elections, Tariceanu has effectively dropped this hot-potato issue into the laps of the next parliament and government, who will be the final arbiters of the GOR’s proposed 2009 budget in any case. The PM’s political opponents are also not entirely disingenuous in disputing the GOR’s protests that it cannot afford the salary hike. It is, as Basescu says, essentially a matter of budget priorities, especially since poor administrative capacity has prevented the educational system from spending a sizeable share of its budget allotment this year for improved school infrastructure.
7. (C) Comment continued. Still, the greatest danger to Romania in all this may not be one of real, immediate pressure on the budget, but rather one of perceptions. At a time of great uncertainty in international markets and rapid souring of confidence in emerging markets generally, the teacher salary issue conveys a powerful impression that much of Romania’s political class is operating in a self-serving cocoon of economic unreality. This image is not helped by the fact that even politicians like Tariceanu, who has been willing to stand up to the unions in an election season, have approved a draft 2009 budget filled with plenty of populist goodies and based on growth and inflation projections which no one outside the GOR believes to be realistic. As the S&P rating downgrade illustrates, perceptions can have real costs, and Romania’s leaders should be at least as concerned at this point about their international credibility deficit as they are about the budget deficit. End comment.