TURKEY’S prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday said he had no plans to step down amid corruption allegations which have already led to the resignation of three of his cabinet ministers.
Police are investigating claims of illicit money transfers to Iran and bribery for construction projects.
The three ministers’ sons were among dozens of people detained as part of a wide-ranging corruption probe. The ministers were part of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Turkey’s army, in response to rumours of a coup plot, has said it does not want to get involved in political arguments.
Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up ongoing protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Police estimate more than 5,000 people attended the protests.
Demonstrations were also held in the capital, Ankara, and Turkey’s third city, Izmir.
Many of the protesters were heard chanting “catch the thief” and have called for Erdogan’s resignation.
But at a rally outside Istanbul’s main airport, Erdogan said he had no intention of resigning.
Instead, the prime minister labelled the anti-corruption probe “a smear campaign” and urged thousands of supporters to vote for his party in local elections being held next month. He said: “Those who call it a corruption inquiry are corrupt themselves.”
Turkey has a history of military takeovers but the army’s power has been curbed during Erdogan’s decade in power.
The country’s top administrative court has blocked a government decree, introduced last week, ordering police to inform their superiors before launching investigations.
The blocking of the decree is seen as the latest setback in Erdogan’s efforts to stop the political fallout from the corruption scandal.
A number of leading police and judicial officials have been removed from their posts since the first arrests ten days ago.
The European Union has expressed concern over the deepening scandal and urged the country to handle the issue in a “transparent and impartial manner”.
The EU’s Enlargement Commissioner, Stefan Füle, welcomed the court’s decision saying the government’s decree had undermined the judiciary’s “capacity to act”.
He said: “I urge Turkey … to take all the necessary measures to ensure that allegations of wrongdoing are addressed without discrimination or preference in a transparent and impartial manner.”
Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt urged Turkish officials to return to “EU-inspired and democratic reforms”.
Meanwhile, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, said that nations must clear up corruption allegations without regard to who might be involved.
He added: “In the Middle East, which is marked by crises and conflicts, a Turkey that is steady internally and externally is needed as a stable anchor.”
Commentators in Turkey believe the corruption scandal stems from a power struggle between Erdogan’s government and an influential US-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen is understood to have many followers within Turkey’s police and judiciary.
Supporters regard the Hizmet movement inspired by Gulen as the benign, modern face of Islam, but critics question its motives.
Last week Erdogan was forced to reshuffle his cabinet and fired key ministers after 24 people, including the sons of the former ministers, were arrested on bribery charges.
One of the three ministers to quit, environment minister Erdogan Bayraktar, urged the premier to step down himself.
“To soothe the nation, I believe that the prime minister should resign, too,” said Bayraktar, who resigned after his son was taken into custody by police.
The two other ministers – economy minister Zafer Caglayan and interior minister Muammer Guler – quit after their sons were also taken into custody as part of the ongoing probe.
Members of the media in Turkey have been prevented from entering police buildings, leading to further claims that the government is trying to impede the investigation.