What Really Brought Down The Romanian Government?

Victor Ponta quits
Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta leaves the government headquarters after announcing his resignation in Bucharest, Romania, November 4, 2015. Ponta resigned on Wednesday, in a surprise move just hours after mass protests demanding cabinet resignations as the death toll from a Bucharest nightclub fire reached 32, his ruling leftist party said. Reuters/Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea

Less than a week after a fire in a heavy metal nightclub in Bucharest killed 32 people and left more than 130 hospitalized, the Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has announced his resignation, along with his entire government.

But the placards held by the 20,000 protesters who filled the streets of the capital last night in response to the blaze told a wider story. "Corruption kills," they read. For the Romanian people weary of an unpopular government, the tragic nightclub fire was simply the final straw.

For a long time, Ponta has been facing growing calls to resign due to a number of damaging scandals. In 2014, he was forced to hand back his doctorate after he was accused of plagiarism by a panel of Bucharest University academics in 2012. In September, he became the first sitting Romanian prime minister to go on trial charged with corruption. He was indicted in July on charges including forgery, money laundering and being an accessory to tax evasion while he was working as a lawyer in 2008.

Ponta has denied the charges and up until now has resisted calls to step down. But in his resignation statement, released on Wednesday, Ponta said: "I have the obligation to acknowledge that there is legitimate anger in society."

It is not only Ponta in the spotlight. Some critics say that bribery and corruption is endemic in Romanian public life. Since 2014, partly due to the dogged pursuit of corrupt officials by the Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, a series of former and current government ministers have been arrested. That year, the former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase was sentenced to four years in prison for bribery offences.

Most recently, the Interior Minister Gabriel Oprea has been under pressure to resign over the recent accidental death of a police outrider who was accompanying his motorcade. The incident prompted hundreds to protest, arguing Oprea had abused his position by using too many motorcades. Oprea has now also left office, with Ponta.

"Ponta is a symbol of corruption in the country," says Pieter Cleppe, a senior lawyer at the think tank Open Europe, who believes the nightclub fire was merely the catalyst for Ponta's downfall. The leader of Ponta's governing Social Democratic party, Liviu Dragnea, said the premier was giving up his mandate as "someone needs to assume responsibility" for the nightclub fire, according to the Financial Times.

Witnesses say the fire broke out during a heavy metal concert in the Colectiv nightclub club in Bucharest on Friday night, when one of the performing bands set off fireworks. A spark then ignited foam panels covering a pillar, and within seconds the entire ceiling was on fire. Around 500 people, including teenagers as young as 14, were inside at the time, according to Sky News.

The three owners of the club have been arrested, and protesters say the venue lacked the sufficient emergency exits and may not have been authorized to hold such a concert. But some protesters immediately pointed at bureaucrats and politicians as they apportioned blame.

Protesters told the BBC the mayor of the Bucharest district where the fire took place illegally approved the opening of the club, and that the owners bribed the authorities for a permit. The claims could not be substantiated, but the fact that so many turned out on the streets convinced that the government indirectly played a part in the tragedy shows the extent of anger about rampant cronyism in the country.

"The people in the streets last night were there first of all out of a sense of solidarity with those who died," Maria-Nicoleta Andreescu, executive director of the Association for the Defence of Human Rights in Romania, says. "But they were there not just to express their compassion but because they are very angry that the authorities are not doing their jobs to prevent such accidents, or punishing those who are guilty."

Cleppe says it would be difficult to prove that Friday night's tragic events were directly linked to incorrect licenses or permits, but emphasized that wider issues of corruption exist regardless.

"There could have been huge risks in the club even if it did have the correct permits, but it doesn't matter because it is perceived to be just another example of corruption and a lack of respect for the rule of law that has contributed to people dying, whether it is justified or not," Cleppe says. "The protests are really about wanting the heads of some of those responsible perceived to be holding back the country."