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Romanian PM quits amid sleaze scandal, nightclub blaze fallout – 20,000 people protest in Bucharest

BUCHAREST: In this June 9, 2015 file photo, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta adjusts his collar during a meeting with foreign media at the government headquarters. — AP
BUCHAREST: In this June 9, 2015 file photo, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta adjusts his collar during a meeting with foreign media at the government headquarters. — AP

BUCHAREST; Romania’s embattled 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’s tragedy at the Colectiv disco in Bucharest, which left 32 dead and nearly 200 injured of whom many remain in critical condition. Ponta, Romania’s premier 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,” he 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.” Demonstrators massed on Tuesday evening in Bucharest’s Victory Square, the seat of government, calling for Ponta’s resignation and that of his interior minister, 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 the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. “This tragedy touched the nation’s most sensitive nerve,” President Klaus Iohannis said. “Romanians’ indignation has turned into a real revolt.” He regretted that “people had to die for the government to step down.”

After the resignation announcement Ponta and his Social Democrat party met their coalition partners and nominated Defense Minister Mircea Dusa as interim premier. The conservative Iohannis must now start talks with political parties on the formation of a new government, though his own National Liberal Party-in opposition in parliament-called for early elections.

Analyst Ciprian Ciucu of the Romanian Centre for European Policies said the cumulative pressure of the graft scandal and anger over the nightclub disaster had become too much for Ponta to bear. Unless he stepped aside, “the protests would have gone on, which would have further damaged his party,” Ciucu told AFP. “Ponta was looking for a way out, his government was coming to its end.”

Heroism, bitterness

The toll from the nightclub fire would have been worse but for the heroism of two men, physicist Claudiu Petre and drummer Adrian Rugina, who went repeatedly 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.

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 observe safety regulations. The venue did not have the required authorisation to hold concerts or to stage pyrotechnic displays, the secretary of state at the interior ministry, Raed Arafat, has 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 ($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 shortly after his trial started. Another preliminary hearing is due on Friday.

The charges date back to 2007-11, when Ponta-the first Romanian head of government to stand trial while still in office-was working as a lawyer. Prosecutors also suspect Ponta of conflict of interest during his time as premier, but that probe was stymied when parliament refused to lift his immunity from prosecution. Ponta’s party holds a comfortable majority in the chamber.

Dozens of former politicians and judges have been swept up in investigations launched by the anti-corruption agency in one of Europe’s poorest and most graft-plagued countries. Yesterday’s drama comes as Romania hosted a summit of Central and Eastern European leaders which is expected to ask for greater NATO involvement in the region, rattled by the conflict in nearby Ukraine. – AFP

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