Romania's embattled Prime Minister Victor Ponta resigned Wednesday after a deadly nightclub blaze prompted mass demonstrations, but his move failed to stop tens of thousands from taking to the streets for a second night. The 43-year-old prime minister announced the dissolution of the government on television, saying top officials had to take responsibility for Friday's tragedy at the Colectiv disco in Bucharest.
The fire left 32 people dead and nearly 200 injured, many of whom remain in critical condition. Ponta, prime minister since 2012, had been under pressure to quit weeks before the blaze, after going on trial in September on 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."
But the move was not enough to stop 30,000 people taking to the streets later on Wednesday for a second day of protests to demand a "profound change" in the government. More than 20,000 gathered in the capital while some 10,000 turned out across a dozen other major cities.
Wednesday's turnout was even bigger than one the previous evening in Bucharest's Victory Square, the seat of government, calling for Ponta and his interior minister, Gabriel Oprea, to step down. 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.
After his resignation announcement, Ponta and his Social Democrat party met their coalition partners and nominated Defense Minister Mircea Dusa as interim prime minister.
The conservative Romanian president, Klaus 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.
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.
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 in July as head of the Social Democrat party, which holds a comfortable majority, but survived a no-confidence vote in parliament in September shortly after his trial started.