How did a nightclub fire lead Romania's PM to resign over corruption?

The Romanian prime minister has resigned, and his government with him, over a fire in a nightclub in Bucharest. The fire came amid a crackdown on government corruption, which is being blamed for the incident's high death toll.  

Vadim Ghirda/AP
Children hold toy weapons during a protest in front of the government headquarters in Bucharest, Romania, Tuesday. Up to 8,000 people joined a protest against the endemic corruption affecting all levels of the administration, calling for the resignation of the government.

A pyrotechnic-induced nightclub fire does not usually qualify as a political act, but in Romania it has effectively collapsed a parliamentary government. 

The fire at the nightclub Colectiv killed 32 people, with another 130 still hospitalized. A protest Tuesday night included 20,000 people after a memorial service earlier in the day for a man who went back into the flames to try and rescue victims, the AP reported.

The incident in a Bucharest nightclub sparked a latent debate over corruption, and thousands of Romanians marched in the streets to call for the government to resign. The protesters blamed government corruption and poor safety supervision for the fire's high death toll, as survivors said that people caught in the quickly spreading fire panicked when they realized their only escape was a single, narrow entrance, NPR reported. On Wednesday, five days after the fire, the prime minister agreed to resign along with the parliamentary government.

"I was two meters [6.6-feet] from the door and I barely got out," said Delia Tugui, a Spanish teacher who attended the concert with her family, according to the AP. "People started pushing each other, stamping on each other, it was incredibly quick."

The dramatic protest resulted in part from a culture of street protest in Romania, which has stayed alive in the wake of the successful protest to overthrow Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, the BBC reported. 

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has been resisting resigning over corruption charges for months, but the disastrous fire galvanized a wave of anticorruption energy that has been active for several years in Romania, which ranks among the European Union's most corrupt nations according to Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perception Index.

"I am obliged to take note of the legitimate grievances which exist in society," Ponta said in a statement. "I hope handing in my and my government's mandate will satisfy the demands of protesters."

The country's National Anticorruption Directorate, empowered from outside by pressure from the EU and also from the frustrated Romanian public, has taken on the culture of corruption in recent years, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

"The area of untouchables has gotten smaller and smaller with time," Laura Stefan, an anticorruption expert and a former director in the Romanian Ministry of Justice, told The Christian Science Monitor. "People are seeing for the first time, if you steal you go to jail, no matter who you are."

Coming amid this corruption crackdown, the public is blaming the government for the damage the fire caused. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis noted the anger less than a day after the fire.

"I visited burns patients from last night's tragedy," he told the AP. "I spoke to a patient's mum. People are disgusted that such a thing could happen and I hope we manage to have results of the inquiry as soon as possible and to change norms so that things like this never happen again."

The protesters Tuesday chanted "shame on you," and "assassins," while carrying signs that read "corruption kills." The government has also responded by arresting the nightclub's three owners, as many have said the club was overcrowded and had too few exits, which amplified the death toll, the BBC reported. A young woman at the protest said two of her friends died in the fire, and this showed a disrespect for the young. 

"Things must change and change must come from those who govern us," she told the BBC. 

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