ANKARA - Three top Turkish ministers resigned on Wednesday over a high-level graft probe, with one of them calling on the prime minister to step down himself in a major escalation of the biggest scandal to hit the government in years.
After announcing his own resignation, Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar raised the stakes by calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to follow suit. It marks the first time Erdogan has faced such a challenge from a minister in his own Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“I am stepping down as minister and lawmaker,” Bayraktar told the private NTV television. “I believe the prime minister should also resign.”
Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and Interior Minister Muammer Guler also announced they were quitting on Wednesday.
The sons of both ministers are among the two dozen people who have been charged as part of a wide-ranging bribery and corruption probe that has ensnared close government allies and top businessmen.
Bayraktar’s son was also detained last week, but has not been formally charged and has been released pending trial.
Those caught up in the police raids are suspected of numerous offences including accepting and facilitating bribes for development projects and securing construction permits for protected areas in exchange for money.
Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2002 as the head of a conservative Islamic-leaning government, has described the probe as “a smear campaign” to undermine Turkey’s ambitions to become a major political and economic power.
In a televised speech on Wednesday, he did not comment on the ministers’ resignations. Instead, he again blamed the probe on “a conspiracy” and “international powers” and insisted the AKP had a clear record.
Observers say the investigation has exposed a rift between Erdogan and former ally Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who lives in the United States and whose movement wields considerable influence in Turkey’s police and judiciary.
The damaging probe also comes ahead of crucial local elections in March and presidential elections in August.
Bayraktar said the vast majority of construction projects mentioned in the investigation were carried out with the premier’s approval.
“It’s the prime minister’s natural right to work with or remove whichever minister he would like to,” he told NTV in a live broadcast.
“But I don’t accept any pressure to resign over an operation involving bribery and corruption... because a big majority of construction plans in the investigation dossier were carried out with the approval of the prime minister.”
The television network then cut the live feed in a move that immediately raised a stir on Twitter, with critics slamming it as censorship. The political tensions of the past days have hurt the already slowing Turkish economy, pushing the national currency to hover around record lows against the US dollar.
Erdogan, who has responded to the investigation by sacking dozens of police chiefs, is expected to reshuffle his cabinet shortly in light of the corruption controversy.
Local media reported that he may submit a list of new cabinet members to the president as early as Wednesday.
Caglayan kept up the government’s defiant stance in his resignation statement, declaring that the investigation was “clearly a hideous plot against our government, our party and our country.”
“I am stepping down from my post as economy minister so that this ugly game targeting my close colleagues and my son will be spoiled and the truth will be revealed,” he said. Interior Minister Guler simply told the state-run Anatolia news agency that “I offered my resignation to the prime minister on December 17 and today I conveyed it in writing.”
The leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who called for the government’s resignation as soon as the scandal erupted, said the ministers’ decision to quit came “too late”.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Istanbul on Sunday also calling on the government to step down.
Muslim cleric Gulen has denied being behind the controversial investigation. His reported dispute with Erdogan is thought to be linked to government plans to shut down a network of Gulenist schools, a major source of revenue for the group.
Gulenists were previously key backers of the AKP, helping it to win three elections in a row since 2002. Turkey’s local elections on March 30 are now being seen as a key indicator of where the political fault-lines lie throughout the country.