Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Turkey’s capital Ankara on Saturday in protest against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which has been rocked by a vast corruption probe.
The government also signaled it may back down on a contentious bid to curb the judges’ powers as fierce scuffles erupted in a parliament commission ahead of a second round of debate over the draft bill.
As Erdogan arrived home after a week-long tour to Asia, about 20,000 protesters gathered at Ankara’s major Sihhiye Square, chanting: “Revolution will clean this filth” and “they are thieves.”
Some protesters were also handing out fake dollars with Erdogan’s photograph on them.
The corruption scandal implicating close allies of Erdogan has rattled his government to its core, and poses the biggest challenge to his 11-year rule.
It erupted on Dec. 17 last year, when several public figures, including high-profile businessmen and the sons of three ministers, were detained over allegations of bribery for construction projects.
The prime minister has responded angrily to the probe, calling it a “dirty plot” to discredit his government.
Erdogan’s government, in power since 2002, has accused loyalists of US-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose movement wields influence in the police and judiciary, of instigating the corruption probe.
Lami Ozgen, one of the protest leaders, said the scandal shed light on the true face of both the government and the Gulen movement.
“The crisis has made it known to the public how those who abuse religion and faith ... are fond of wealth, luxury and splendor, how they worship money and how they see bribery as their direction to Mecca,” Ozgen said.
Gulen was a major supporter of Erdogan’s ruling AKP party when it first came to power in 2002. However, the two have parted ways after the government moved to shut down a network of private schools run by the movement.
“We will not be a mere spectator to this power struggle, because they are ... eating up our salaries and the future of our children,” Ozgen said.
Gulen, who left Turkey for the US in 1999 after being accused of plotting to form an Islamic state, has denied involvement in the corruption investigation.
Turkish Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag said the government may abandon a reform package that would give it more powers over the appointment of judges and prosecutors.
“If political party groups come together ... and reach a consensus, the proposal could be halted,” local media outlets quoted Bekir Bozdag as saying.
The AKP moved to tighten its grip over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, which was slapped down by the top judicial body itself as unconstitutional and sparked criticism from the US and the EU.
Scuffles broke out ahead of a second round of debate on the proposals in parliament’s justice commission on Saturday, with local media reporting that politicians threw punches, water bottles and an iPad.
Opposition parties demand that the AKP abandon the bill, but Bozdag earlier said the proposed reforms would not be withdrawn.
Erdogan has lashed out at a “judicial coup,” accusing prosecutors running the case of plotting to undermine him and his government.
“Why is the judiciary doing this? They have no reason other than treason,” the pro-government Sabah daily quoted him saying. “We are no way trusting the obsessive behavior of the judiciary.”