ANKARA — Three members of Turkey's cabinet resigned over a high-level corruption scandal on Wednesday, and one called on Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to follow suit.
The unprecedented challenge raised the temperature in a week-long crisis that has pitted a defiant Erdogan against the Turkish judiciary and reignited anti-government sentiment which has simmered since the mass street-protests of mid-2013.
The resigning interior, economy and environment ministers each had a son detained on Dec. 17 as police went public with a long-running investigation into graft allegations involving state-run lender Halkbank. Two of the sons remain in custody along with 22 others, including the head of the bank.
The first two ministers echoed the premier in deeming the probe a baseless plot against the government. But Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar turned against the Turkish leader.
“For the sake of the wellbeing of this nation and country, I believe the prime minister should resign,” he told NTV news.
By breaking ranks, Bayraktar may have diluted any easing of pressure on Erdogan afforded by the stepping-down of Interior Minister Muammer Guler and Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan - though some analysts said they had moved too late anyway.
While the cabinet shake-up's Christmas Day timing cushioned the blow to Turkey on dormant international markets, the country's stock index fell fell 3 percent while the lira weakened to 2.0855 against the dollar.
Erdogan did not immediately respond to Bayraktar's remarks.
But in his first public appearance after the resignations, the pugnacious prime minister, who during three terms in office has transformed Turkey by tackling its once-dominant secular military and orchestrating economic boom, appeared unfazed.
Erdogan told provincial leaders of his Islamist-rooted AK party that he would not tolerate corruption. But, having answered the Dec. 17 graft arrests by purging police officers involved, he argued that their work had been deeply tainted.
“If a verdict is made by the opposition party on the second day of the investigation, what's the point of having judges? If a decision is made by the media, what's the point of having these long legal procedures?” Erdogan said.
Alluding to TV news reports which had riveted Turks with images of cash-filled shoeboxes allegedly seized at suspects' homes, he asked: “How do you know what that money is for?”
The 14-month probe was conducted largely in secret. At the weekend, the Erdogan government changed regulations for the police, requiring officers to report evidence, investigations, arrests and complaints to commanding officers and prosecutors. Crime reporters have further been banned from police stations.
Hurriyet newspaper said as many as 550 police officers, including senior commanders, had been dismissed nationwide by Guler over the last week.
Erdogan critics see an authoritarian streak in his rule and the European Union, to which Turkey has long sought accession, on Tuesday urged Ankara to safeguard the separation of powers.
The latest scandal has laid bare rivalry between Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric whose Hizmet (“Service”) movement claims at least a million followers, including senior police and judges, and runs schools and charities across Turkey and abroad.
While denying any role in the affair, Gulen described Erdogan as suffering “decayed thinking” after the premier portrayed himself as fending off a shadowy international plot.
In an apparent reference to Gulen, Erdogan said on Wednesday: “We would not let certain organizations acting under the guise of religion but being used as the tools of certain countries to carry out an operation on our country.”