ANKARA: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was being battered on all fronts Friday, as a graft scandal savaging his government sparked party resignations, fresh street protests and pushed the currency to a record low.
But the premier, who is credited with a decade of economic prosperity in Turkey despite increasingly being seen as autocratic, was defiantly holding on to power, even as the stakes piled up.
He told supporters of his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) that the corruption probe, which has already taken down part of his Cabinet and several high-profile political and business figures, was a “smear campaign” orchestrated by outside forces.
“The target of the attack is Turkey, whose economy is growing ... and whose weight in the world increases,” he said in the city of Sakarya.
Those assertions though were doing little to slow the avalanche of bad news piling on top of him.
Three lawmakers quit the AKP Friday. One of them, former Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay, said the party was being directed by “arrogance.”
Later, rallies were held in Ankara and Istanbul with protesters yelling “Government, resign!”
In Istanbul, police fired water cannons and plastic bullets to disperse hundreds of demonstrators.
In Ankara, some protesters were seen holding up empty shoe boxes – a reference to media images of boxes stuffed with cash found at the homes of one of the corruption suspects.
“The resignation of three ministers is not enough. We demand the resignation of the prime minister and the entire government,” one of the protest leaders, Hasan Yildiz, said.
Turkey’s economy was also hurting. The lira weakened to 2.1492 against the dollar at Friday’s close, a new record low after days of losses.
The major Turkish daily, Hurriyet, said the graft investigation had created a “bomb effect” in markets.
Erdogan has tried to contain the fallout, but to little avail.
After his interior, economy and environment resigned Wednesday – with the latter also calling for the premier to follow suit – Erdogan reshuffled nearly half his Cabinet.
He has also ordered the firing of dozens of police chiefs and decreeing that investigating police to inform their superiors before launching investigations demanded by public prosecutors.
One public prosecutor Thursday said police and prosecution chiefs were blocking the expanding inquiry by refusing to carry out arrest warrants.
But the top court Friday blocked the government decree, which it said would cause “irrevocable damage.”
And the European Union urged Erdogan’s administration to address the corruption allegations in a “transparent and impartial manner.”
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said in a statement there was “growing concern” over the developments in Turkey, which hopes one day to join the European bloc.
Fule said the government directive “undermined the independence of the judiciary and its capacity to act” and welcomed the Turkish court ruling.
Pro-government media had suggested the corruption inquiry could be a setup to trigger a military coup.
But the army, seen as guarantor of the country’s secular traditions, made it clear Friday it would not get involved.
“The Turkish Armed Forces do not want to get involved in political debates,” the army said in a statement posted on its website.
The backdrop to the crisis is a power struggle between Erdogan and former ally Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish sheikh who is hugely influential at home and whose followers hold key positions in the judiciary and the police.
“The Cabinet reshuffle may contain the fire for now but it will not put it out,” wrote columnist Huseyin Gulerce in the Zaman daily affiliated with Gulen.
Erdogan is seen as increasingly struggling under the scandal, which has damaged his unstated hopes of running for president in 2014 elections.
But he has remained defiant.
Last weekend when Erdogan charged that “some ambassadors are engaged in provocative actions” and “we don’t have to keep you in our country” – perceived as a veiled threat to U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone.
Pro-government newspapers have targeted Ricciardone directly, saying: “Get out of this country.”
The U.S. State Department Friday criticized the “baseless attacks” and said it had made its concerns known to Turkish authorities.
The Turkish media criticism of the U.S. ambassador was “deeply disturbing,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.