ANKARA – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan replaced nearly half his cabinet in a dramatic reshuffle late on Wednesday after a spreading graft scandal forced the resignation of three top ministers and threatened the premier’s own hold on power.
Erdogan announced on television he had replaced the three resigning ministers – for the interior, economy and the environment – as well as his EU affairs minister, and reshuffled the justice, transport, family, sports and industry portfolios, and one of his four deputy prime ministers’ posts.
The reshuffle was decided in a closed-door meeting with President Abdullah Gul, who had said since Tuesday that it was imminent.
There was no indication the characteristically defiant prime minister was himself contemplating stepping down, as demanded by anti-government protesters – and by the environment minister who resigned, Erdogan Bayraktar.
Yet the scandal is rapidly becoming a major challenge to Erdogan’s 11-year grip on power in Turkey, a NATO member and significant emerging economy.
His image was already badly bruised in June when he ordered a heavyhanded crackdown on anti-government protests sparked by plans to raze an Istanbul park.
Another protest took place in Istanbul on Wednesday demanding Erdogan’s ouster, but police used tear gas to disperse the estimated 5,000 demonstrators after some skirmishes.
Protests were also reported in Ankara and Izmir.
The probe into the alleged corruption, which has seen recent police raids, focus on numerous offences including accepting and facilitating bribes for construction projects and illegally smuggling gold to Iran.
Erdogan himself has sought to define the corruption scandal as “a conspiracy” plotted by “international powers.”
He insists his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) party has a clean record and has responded to the investigation by sacking dozens of police chiefs.
Ministers ‘excused due to the recent developments’
Announcing the reshuffle, Erdogan referred to the scandal only indirectly, saying: “Some of my friends have asked to be excused due to the recent developments.”
Others, he said were leaving to contest March 30 local elections, “and others are changes proposed to the president within my discretion and approved by him.”
Erdogan named Idris Gulluce as his new environment minister; an interior ministry undersecretary, Efkan Ala, his new interior minister; and Nihat Zeybekci his economy minister.
Emrullah Isler became a deputy prime minister, replacing Bekir Bozdag who became justice minister.
The scandal hit a politically critical level when the sons of the previous interior and economy ministers were among two dozen people to be charged in the wide-ranging bribery and corruption probe, which has also ensnared close government allies and top businessmen, including the chief executive of state-owned Halkbank.
On Wednesday, the previous economy minister Zafer Caglayan, interior minister Muammer Guler and environment minister Bayraktar announced their resignations.
Both Caglayan and Guler have rejected the bribery accusations against their sons. AFP