ISTANBUL— Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan fired hundreds of police officers in what is considered to be the latest purge of police and prosecutors since an investigation into alleged high-level government corruption.
In Ankara, 350 police officers were sacked or reassigned after a government decree issued at midnight Monday, local time. Hundreds of officers from neighboring towns will replace them. The move follows the launch of a major probe involving alleged rigged construction tenders and laundering of money from neighboring Iran. Three cabinet ministers ended up resigning following the detention of their sons.
But Erdogan has described the investigation as a dirty plot and part of international conspiracy to overthrow his government. Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Forum warns the deepening crisis threatens the stability of the country.
"As the judiciary as a key institution in a democratic country is completely upside down and there is a very serious chaos, actually," he said.
Among the hundreds removed is the Istanbul police chief and senior officers thought to be involved in the corruption probe, including the chief of financial investigations.
Government officials have accused followers of an Islamic group led by Fetullah Gulen, a former backer of Turkey's Islam-rooted government who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, of being behind the corruption investigation. Gulen has denied the allegation.
Asli Aydintasbas, a political columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, says it’s hard to judge the validity of the government's conspiracy claims.
"There is no doubt that this is part of this part of the power struggle between Gulenists and the government. And the Gulenists are influential in the judiciary and the police force," Aydintasbas said. " Except who are the Gulenists: do they take orders from Pennsylvania, where Fetullah Gulen lives, or is it just some sort of emotional spiritual guidance?"
A much wider purge of followers of Gulen could be in offing. A senior deputy of the ruling AK Party tweeted that the government has a list of 2,000 Gulen followers not only in the judiciary and police, but also among journalists, businessmen and academics. The government subsequently denied the existence of the list.
Political scientist Aktar claims the government now faces its most serious challenge since coming to power.
"It's one of the most serious crises," noted Aktar. "It's probably one of the biggest crises in the last 11 years, because it touches the very core of the key institutions of the regime and no one knows how the dust will settle."
For now, the mass dismissals of police and prosecutors appear to have brought the corruption probe to a halt. But political columnist Aydintasbas says the government remains mired in the graft allegations and is seeking to cover them up.
"Some of these allegations are very serious and cannot be ignored and, in the end, we are going to go to the ballots at the end of March for local elections," she noted, adding that Erdogan will be looking to upcoming elections for vindication. "It's going to be a referendum on Erdogan and his government. It's not going to be about local government; its going to be about Erdogan."
Observers say Erdogan will be buoyed by the knowledge that he faces what is still a largely ineffectual opposition. But the controversy surrounding the corruption investigation continues to hit the economy hard, with the Turkish currency plummeting to record lows this week. Still, it remains unclear who the public will ultimately blame for the crisis and its consequences.