November 4, 2014 / 4:03 PM / in 3 years

Romania's Ponta eyes former PM Tariceanu as successor

Romania's former Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, head of the jury of Romania's first "Vintage Cars Elegance Contest" looks at the engine of a Mercedes Benz 250 SE in Sinaia mountain resort in front of Peles royal castle, 140 km north of Bucharest May 28, 2011. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said on Tuesday he favored bringing back former premier Calin Tariceanu as his successor, should he become president after an election that heads to a run-off on Nov. 16.

A wealthy businessman and Ponta ally who first came to prominence shortly after the fall of Romania’s communist rule in 1989, Tariceanu was also a contender in the presidential race but trailed far behind in third place.

As expected, Ponta won the first round on Sunday, a step towards a victory that would consolidate his Social Democrats’ hold on power and could bring more stability to one of Europe’s poorest countries. He is favorite to win against Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German mayor who finished second.

Offering Tariceanu the post of prime minister, which he last held in 2004-2008 and relinquished just before Romania plunged into deep recession, could help Ponta scoop up votes from Tariceanu’s camp in order to cement his position.

“Tariceanu is my main option,” Ponta told reporters after a short meeting of the ruling coalition.

Backed by a well-oiled party machine, Ponta has trumpeted his record of easing the painful austerity measures and cuts that Romanians endured after the financial crisis. He promises that whoever succeeds him will stick to the coalition program Ponta has followed since coming to office two years ago.

“The next prime minister will guarantee the 2012 governing program, will keep unchanged the flat (profit and income) tax at 16 percent, maintain the social security tax cut of 5 percent, guarantee an annual indexing (rise) of pensions,” he said.

Before a credit bubble burst and forced Romania to ask the International Monetary Fund for a bailout in 2009, Tariceanu oversaw sharp hikes in pensions and ran double-digit current account deficits, despite warnings from international lenders and rating agencies about fiscal discipline.

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Once famed for riding his Harley Davidson motorcyle around the capital, the 62-year-old Tariceanu now heads the Liberal Reforming Party which on Tuesday chose to officially ally itself to Ponta’s coalition in parliament, boosting his majority to more than 60 percent.

“This will give Ponta a competitive edge in the runoff vote over Iohannis, it’s a smart strategic move of the PSD,” said political commentator Cristian Patrasconiu, using the Romanian acronym for the Social Democrats. “It is also a move trying to lure some other centrist MPs from parliament to join.”

Tariceanu was non-committal about taking over as premier, telling reporters: “We are just before a Nov. 16 runoff and we all need to focus on that first.”

A former prosecutor and amateur rally driver, Ponta won 40.4 percent of the vote in the first round, exactly 10 points ahead of his nearest rival, according to the final results.

The prospect of a Ponta presidency has raised concerns about the independence of the judiciary and prosecutors. As president, Ponta might also cut loose from an IMF aid deal that has shored up the country’s credibility with investors since 2009. [ID:nL4N0SL09W]

Ponta said another option to succeed him as premier was Florin Georgescu, a central bank deputy governor, whose appointment would send a clear signal that the government was committed to fiscal discipline.

A third option was George Maior, the head of Romania’s secret service, who is also Ponta’s godfather and a former Social Democrat lawmaker.

Reporting by Radu Marinas; Editing by Matthias Williams and Mark Trevelyan

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