ANKARA – Turkey’s prime minister on Sunday warned his rivals he would “break their hands” if they used a widening graft scandal to undermine his rule, and thousands of angry protesters called for the government’s resignation.
“Everyone will know their place,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan told cheering supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in his latest combative response to a high-profile probe into bribery and corruption allegations that has ensnared Cabinet ministers.
“Whoever dares to harm, stir up or set traps in this country, we will come to break those hands,” the premier said in a speech in the Black Sea province of Giresun.
His heated remarks came as riot police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse several thousand demonstrators in Istanbul calling on the AKP government to step down.
Many were protesting against grand urban development projects, but some symbolically held up shoe boxes to show their fury over recent claims of widespread bribery by members of Erdogan’s Islamic-leaning government.
In a further sign of growing public anger, Galatasaray soccer fans in Istanbul chanted “Everywhere is bribery, everywhere is corruption” at the start of a home game against Trabzonspor.
The words were a deliberate play on a chant that was often heard during the huge antigovernment protests that took over Istanbul’s Taksim Square in June: “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance.”
The high-level graft probe has shaken Turkey’s political establishment, exposing a bitter feud between the AKP and influential Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen whose followers hold key positions in the police, judiciary and secret services.
Twenty-four people have been charged so far in connection with the investigation, including the sons of Interior Minister Muammer Guler and Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, as well as the chief executive of state-owned Halkbank.
Police also seized $4.5 million in cash hidden in shoe boxes in Halkbank CEO Suleyman Aslan’s home, local media reported last Tuesday.
Those detained are suspected of numerous offenses including accepting and facilitating bribes for development projects and securing construction permits for protected areas in exchange for money.
Erdogan has described the sweeping corruption probe, which comes ahead of crucial March municipal polls, as a smear operation against his government.
A day after their sons were charged with acting as intermediaries for giving and taking bribes, the interior and economy ministers broke their silence to deny the accusations.
“It is out of the question for us to be involved in any unlawful affairs,” Guler wrote on Twitter on Sunday, while Caglayan railed against a “big trap” set for the AKP government.
Observers have linked last week’s police raids targeting scores of people to tensions between Erdogan and followers of the Gulen movement that boiled over when the government announced plans to shut down a network of private schools run by the Islamic cleric, 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 it first took office in 2002.
‘We will emerge stronger’
Erdogan has responded to the mass detentions by sacking dozens of police officials, including the Istanbul police chief, for cooperating with the investigation without permission.
Local media reported on Sunday that another 25 police chiefs had been fired in the fast-moving saga.
A lawyer for Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, has denied that he was involved in the graft investigation, and Gulen himself has lashed out at those responsible for the police purge, saying that the assault was aimed at “finishing off” his Hizmet (Service) movement.
Erdogan on Sunday again blamed international plotters and “very dirty alliances” for attempting to create chaos, and voiced his support for the ministers caught up in the probe.
“It is not all about corruption,” he said. “The nation will respond to those who attempt to set traps in order to tarnish ministers.”
The premier, whose image was already bruised by June’s antigovernment unrest, is facing a key test as the country braces for an election cycle next year starting with the local polls in March.
“The nation will win on March 30, democracy will win,” he said. “We will emerge stronger as long as we remain united.”
In the midst of the worst scandal of his 11-year rule, the premier was due to leave the country late on Sunday for a two-day official visit to Pakistan.