November 4, 2015 / 2:31 PM / 4 years ago

Romanian PM Victor Ponta steps down, court case looms

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his cabinet resigned on Wednesday in the wake of a nightclub fire that killed 32 people and injured nearly 200, leading to nationwide protests against a public administration widely seen as corrupt.

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta leaves the government headquarters after announcing his resignation in Bucharest, Romania November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea

“I can carry any political battles, but I can’t fight with the people,” 43-year-old Ponta told reporters.

“I hope that my and the government’s resignation will satisfy protesters’ expectations, so that we can return to reason and reasonable decisions for what needs doing in Romania as soon as possible.”

When Ponta came to power in 2012, he was the European Union state’s youngest ever prime minister.

He leaves the post under less enviable circumstances, having become the country’s first sitting premier to be put on trial for graft.

In the case, which began in September, Ponta stands accused of forgery, money-laundering and being an accessory to tax evasion during his years working as a lawyer. He has denied all charges - as well as all previous calls for his resignation.

Ponta, a graduate of the University of Bucharest’s law department and a keen amateur rally driver, served as a prosecutor before going into politics.

He has been accused of various things in the past, including plagiarizing his doctoral thesis and acting as a spy for foreign intelligence services in the 1990s. He denies all these allegations.

In 2012, soon after coming to office, he led an unsuccessful effort to impeach former President Traian Basescu, the political nemesis of his Social Democrats. The move drew strong criticism from Brussels and Washington that Ponta was failing to ensure the rule of law.

While serving as prime minister, he reversed painful austerity measures taken by a previous cabinet at the height of an economic crisis. He raised the minimum wage and some public sector salaries, and also increased subsidies for school children and implemented various tax cuts.

In November 2014 he suffered a shock defeat in a presidential election, however, losing to center-right candidate Klaus Iohannis as thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets in mass rallies that resembled those seen on Tuesday.

Earlier this year, Ponta ignored EU and International Monetary Fund concerns and passed a package of consumption-friendly tax cuts for 2015 and 2016, seeking to sustain a period of already strong economic growth but ignoring warnings that a fiscal blowout could lie ahead.

Ponta could face his first court hearings later in November.

Editing by Hugh Lawson

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