Embattled Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, mired in a corruption scandal, resigned yesterday following a deadly nightclub blaze, a day after more than 20,000 people rallied in Bucharest to demand he step down.
The 43-year-old announced his resignation on television, saying it was right that top officials took responsibility for Friday last week’s tragedy at the Colectiv disco in Bucharest, which left 32 dead and nearly 200 injured.
Ponta, Romania’s prime minister since 2012, had faced weeks of intense pressure to quit after going on trial in September facing charges of fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.
“I am stepping down as prime minister,” Ponta said. “I hope the government’s resignation will satisfy the people who came out in the streets. I have to acknowledge the legitimate anger of the people.”
The mayor of the district in the Romanian capital where the nightclub is located, Cristian Popescu Piedone, also resigned yesterday, saying he is morally guilty for the deadliest fire in Romania’s history.
“I assume the moral blame. As for the legal [blame], I will leave it to justice to pronounce,” Piedone said.
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis must now name an interim prime minister before launching talks with political parties about forming a new government.
Demonstrators on Tuesday evening massed in Bucharest’s Victory Square, the seat of government, calling for Ponta’s resignation and that of Romanian Minister of Internal Affairs Gabriel Oprea.
The marchers chanted “Ponta resign” and “killers,” and some waved the national flag with holes in it — a symbol of the popular revolution 25 years ago that toppled Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
The toll from the nightclub fire would have been far worse, but for the heroism of two men, physicist Claudiu Petre and drummer Adrian Rugina, who went several times into the burning club to rescue trapped revelers, only to die themselves.
Witnesses said a fireworks display triggered the blaze at the Colectiv, which was located in a former shoe factory. The inferno sparked a deadly stampede. Nearly 200 people were injured in the tragedy.
Three of the nightclub’s bosses were arrested on Monday on suspicion of manslaughter over the fire, which officials and witnesses have blamed on a failure to follow safety regulations.
The venue did not have the required authorization to hold concerts or to stage pyrotechnic displays, Romanian Secretary of State Raed Arafat said.
The tragedy shocked Romania and prompted Iohannis — Ponta’s bitter political rival — to call for fundamental change in a society riven by corruption.
“We should no longer tolerate government incompetence, institutional inefficiency, and we cannot let corruption spread to the point that it kills people,” he said on Sunday.
Prosecutors accuse Ponta of receiving the equivalent of 55,000 euros (US$63,000) from Dan Sova, a political ally and member of parliament suspected by prosecutors of abuse of power, but who enjoys immunity.
Ponta stepped down as head of the Social Democrat Party in July, but survived a no-confidence vote in parliament in September.
The charges date back to 2007 to 2011, when Ponta was working as a lawyer.
Additional reporting by AP
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