BUCHAREST Thousands of Romanians marched in silence through the capital Bucharest on Sunday to mark one year since a nightclub fire killed 64 people, a tragedy that led to mass protests at a culture of official graft and eventually brought down the government.
More than 4,000 people carrying flowers and candles processed towards the site of Colectiv club, protesting that corruption still plagues Romania and the country remains ill-equipped to prevent or handle another tragedy.
The streets along their route were lined with electoral banners ahead of a Dec. 11 parliamentary election, all promising to reform and change Romania for the better. Polls predict no party will gain an outright majority.
The technocrat government leading the country since the leftist government resigned last November has gone some way to improve transparency. State institutions must release spending data monthly. Healthcare data and information on EU-funded projects is public.
But questions remain over whether the next elected government will continue tackling graft.
The fire broke out when fireworks used during a concert by rock band Goodbye to Gravity ignited non-fireproofed insulation foam, triggering a stampede towards the single-door exit and trapping many of the roughly 350 people inside.
Sixty-four people died and more than 100 were injured, in one of the European Union's worst disasters in decades.
Prosecutors' investigations have shown the club's owners allowed it to fill beyond capacity, and that Colectiv was not equipped to handle fireworks and lacked emergency exits. A company had installed fireworks meant for outdoor use.
Bucharest officials gave the club an operating licence and safety inspectors allowed it to run despite knowing it did not have a fire safety permit. Prosecutors have sent all to trial.
"Romania today is not what it was one year ago," President Klaus Iohannis said, as he laid flowers at the site earlier on Sunday. "People have more expectations."
"We have a duty not to allow this tragedy to be forgotten, to remember it and never forget the innocents who died here at Colectiv."
The fire triggered some of Romania's biggest protests in years against corruption, lack of accountability and a politicised public administration, but many remain pessimistic about any real chance of reform.
"We did not learn a lot from what happened," said Razvan Braileanu, a journalist and musician who survived the fire. From his apartment he sees fire engines struggling to pass through a narrow street blocked by parked cars.
"Sure, there are more fire extinguishers at clubs and concerts, but I don't think society is more aware."
Romania's infrastructure is among the EU's least developed. Court trials have revealed a pattern of awarding public works contracts in exchange for bribes, with works overvalued, delayed and poorly executed.
"Unfortunately there aren't signs that extremely serious structural and institutional problems have been fixed," said Sergiu Miscoiu, associate professor of political science at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj.
Attempts to ensure better governance would remain piecemeal without a major reform strategy, he added.
Iohannis said the country's politicians had become more sensitive, but added, "we ... must continue to exert pressure for parties to reform."
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)