Protests in Turkey as MP quits over graft probe

A Turkish protester holds up a placard reading "Only revolution can clear this corruption" during a demonstration against goverment on Dec 30, 2013 in Istanbul. Hundreds of demonstrators flooded metro stations in Turkey on Tuesday in fresh protests a
A Turkish protester holds up a placard reading "Only revolution can clear this corruption" during a demonstration against goverment on Dec 30, 2013 in Istanbul. Hundreds of demonstrators flooded metro stations in Turkey on Tuesday in fresh protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's beleaguered government, which saw yet another lawmaker defect over a corruption probe. -- PHOTO: AFP

ANKARA (AFP) - Hundreds of demonstrators flooded metro stations in Turkey on Tuesday in fresh protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's beleaguered government, which saw yet another lawmaker defect over a corruption probe.

Mr Hasan Hami Yildirim quit Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) after criticising the government for exerting pressure on the judiciary over the graft investigation, which has plunged Turkey into political turmoil just three months ahead of key elections.

But Mr Erdogan hit out at critics, saying the corruption scandal was cover for an "assassination attempt".

"This conspiracy is an assassination attempt hidden under the cover of corruption," he said in an address to the nation.

"It has targeted the government of the people. It has targeted the nation's will, democracy and the ballot box," charged Mr Erdogan.

A string of public figures including high-profile businessmen and the sons of three ministers were detained on December 17 over allegations of bribery for construction projects as well as illicit money transfers to sanctions-hit Iran.

Five MPs including a former culture minister have resigned from the AKP since the raids, which the government has suggested were instigated by supporters of an influential US-based Turkish cleric.

Mr Erdogan was also forced into a major cabinet reshuffle after the resignation last week of three ministers whose sons were implicated in the probe.

The corruption scandal has sparked a fresh wave of protests against Mr Erdogan, half a year after he faced down a series of nationwide anti-government demonstrations.

On Tuesday, about 1,000 protesters turned up at the metro at Istanbul's main Taksim Square after a young homeless man was reportedly beaten by a security guard when he tried to board without paying.

"The people's rage will burn down the government," they chanted.

"They are thieves," they shouted, while at a metro station in capital Ankara, riot police confronted hundreds of demonstrators.

The corruption scandal has exposed a seething feud between the AKP and a former ally, influential Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose supporters hold key positions in the police and the judiciary.

The latest resignation has reduced the number of AKP seats in parliament to 320 out of 550 and further undermined Mr Erdogan, Turkey's once unassailable strongman.

The government is set for a key test in March local elections, which will be followed by an August presidential vote and parliamentary elections in 2015.

'Pressure on prosecutor unacceptable'

The resigning MP had previously criticised the removal from the probe of Istanbul prosecutor Muammer Akkas who had been set to order a second wave of arrests, reportedly including Mr Erdogan's son.

"Pressure on prosecutor Muammer Akkas is unacceptable. This pressure cannot be legitimised in a state governed by rule of law," Mr Yildirim said on Twitter.

The government removed Akkas from the case last week, accusing him of leaking secret files to the media, with Mr Erdogan describing him as a "disgrace to justice".

Government spokesman Bulent Arinc had announced on Monday that plans were in the making for legal action against judges and prosecutors accused of wrongdoing or abuse of power.

The country's highest court issued a statement on Tuesday saying "it does not take instructions or requests from anyone and acts according to powers that have been conferred to it by the constitution".

Mr Erdogan's government has already ordered the sacking of dozens of police chiefs linked to Mr Gulen or who oversaw the December 17 raids.

The row between government and Mr Gulen followers first hit the headlines in November over AKP plans to shut down a network of private schools run by the movement.

Gulenists were once key backers of the AKP, helping it to win three elections in a row since 2002.

Erdogan has vowed to fight what he has described a gang acting as a "state within state" against the government, referring to the Gulen movement.

"This is a mini-coup attempt," Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan said in a television interview on Tuesday.

But he vowed that the government would "emerge the winner".

The Turkish currency was hit hard by the political turmoil, plunging to record lows against the US dollar last week but local financial markets have rebounded this week.

The lira traded at 2.1475 against the dollar on Tuesday after hitting a record low of 2.17 last week.

The Istanbul stock exchange closed slightly down 0.27 per cent after surging 6.4 per cent on Monday.

Babacan said the political crisis would not impact the economy, saying the government's growth forecast for 2014 was four percent compared to an estimate of 3.6 per cent for this year.

Arinc had said Monday that the turmoil had cost the economy US$100 billion (S$126 billion).