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Cablegate: Romania Election Update: Basescu-Antonescu Debate

VZCZCXRO2223
RR RUEHIK
DE RUEHBM #0778 3230442
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 190442Z NOV 09
FM AMEMBASSY BUCHAREST
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 0094
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS BUCHAREST 000778

SIPDIS

DEPT FOR EUR/CE ASCHEIBE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV RO
SUBJECT: ROMANIA ELECTION UPDATE: BASESCU-ANTONESCU DEBATE
FEATURES SOME FIREWORKS BUT NO CLEAR WINNER

REF: BUCHAREST 758 AND PREVIOUS

1. (SBU) SUMMARY. President Traian Basescu and National
Liberal Party (PNL) chair and candidate Crin Antonescu
confronted each other in the first televised presidential
debate November 14. The lively exchange touched upon many
topics including education reform, taxes, the fiscal crisis
and the politicization of public administration, but was
marked by a nasty personal exchange that attracted much
public attention and later put Basescu on the defensive.
Both candidates showed a strong grasp of the issues and,
while no clear winner emerged, Antonescu benefited from a
solid performance and increased media exposure. The
perceived loser was Social-Democratic Party (PSD) chair and
presidential candidate Mircea Geoana, who chose not to
participate despite having previously criticized Basescu for
avoiding debates. END SUMMARY.
THE MEAT
2. (SBU) The 75-minute debate was broadcast live from the
Transylvanian city of Cluj and carried by most major
television networks. Antonescu criticized Basescu for
contributing to the politicization of local government bodies
and for lacking coherent policies on rural development and
education. Basescu rebutted by highlighting his efforts to
de-politicize school administration by barring school masters
from party membership and advocating an emphasis on small and
medium enterprises as a road to rural development. He said
that Antonescu's regular proposals for lower income taxes
could not be considered prior to economic recovery. Basescu
also repeated his consistent advocacy for the pending
referendum that would recommend abolishment of the Senate and
establishment of a smaller unicameral parliament, which would
reduce the number of politicians involved in governing the
country. Antonescu retorted that the problem with Romania's
political class was one of quality, not quantity.
3. (SBU) As the event concluded, Basescu offered a long list
of his accomplishments over the past five years in office:
the official condemnation of communism, the transfer of two
million secret police files to archival investigators,
Romanian entry into the EU, basing American soldiers on
Romanian soil, and hosting the 2008 NATO summit. He also
claimed to be one of the few consistent advocates of the
Nabucco pipeline, at a time when others were opening doors
for the Russian-backed rival project South Stream (perhaps a
reference to PSD candidate Geoana's recent visits to Moscow).
Basescu pledged at the end that he would continue the
process of reforming Romania's top-heavy government
bureaucracy.
AND THE FAT
4. (SBU) In response to a mundane question about favorite
movies, Antonescu mentioned "Scent of a Woman." Basescu
suggested sarcastically that his opponent had a problem with
women in government, apparently referring to Antonescu's
previous criticism of Tourism Minister Elena Udrea and former
minister of Youth and Sport Monica Iacob-Ridzi - both reputed
to have been Basescu's lovers. Antonescu retorted that he
himself had no problem with women in power, but Basescu had
promoted unqualified women who had built their careers on
insolence. Basescu took offense and demanded an apology,
then added that he had never left his wife alone in difficult
circumstances - an apparent reference to Antonescu's late
wife who committed suicide after a long battle with terminal
cancer.
NO CLEAR WINNER
5. (SBU) COMMENT. The lively confrontation provided the
public with a good picture of two experienced and astute
candidates. To no one's surprise, Basescu tried to
capitalize on his incumbency while Antonescu worked to
portray himself as a political outsider. Pundits have
largely scored the debate a draw. In the aftermath, though,
Basescu received heavy criticism for his tasteless allusion
to Antonescu's personal tragedy, while Antonescu appeared as
a viable contender for a second round of voting. The only
clear loser was PSD candidate Mircea Geoana, widely scorned
for his arguably hypocritical decision not to participate.
END COMMENT.
GITENSTEIN

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