Three top Turkish ministers resigned yesterday over a high-level graft probe, with one of them calling on the prime minister to step down himself in a major escalation of the biggest scandal to hit the government in years.
After announcing his own resignation, Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar raised the stakes by calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to follow suit. It marks the first time Erdogan has faced such a challenge from a minister in his own Justice and Development Party (AKP).
"I am stepping down as minister and lawmaker," Bayraktar told the private NTV television. "I believe the prime minister should also resign."
Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and Interior Minister Muammer Guler also announced they were quitting yesterday.
The sons of both ministers are among the two dozen people who have been charged as part of a wide-ranging bribery and corruption probe that has ensnared close government allies and top businessmen.
Those caught up in the police raids are suspected of numerous offences including accepting and facilitating bribes for development projects and securing construction permits for protected areas in exchange for money.
Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2002 as the head of a conservative Islamic-leaning government, has described the probe as "a smear campaign" to undermine Turkey's ambitions to become a major political and economic power.
Erdogan's critics accuse him of seeking to protect his cronies.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), called Erdogan a "dictator".
"In this country, everything is controlled by what comes out of a dictator's mouth.... They want to drag the country into the darkness of 19th century," Kilicdaroglu said.
"Turkey needs clean politics and a clean society."
In a televised speech yesterday, Erdogan did not comment on the ministers' resignations. Instead, he again blamed the probe on "a conspiracy" and "international powers" and insisted the AKP had a clear record.
Observers say the investigation has exposed a rift between Erdogan and former ally Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who lives in the United States and whose movement wields considerable influence in Turkey's police and judiciary.
The damaging probe also comes ahead of crucial local elections in March and presidential elections in August.
Bayraktar said the vast majority of construction projects mentioned in the investigation were carried out with the premier's approval.
"It's the prime minister's natural right to work with or remove whichever minister he would like to," he told NTV in a live broadcast.
"But I don't accept any pressure to resign over an operation involving bribery and corruption... because a big majority of construction plans in the investigation dossier were carried out with the approval of the prime minister."
The television network then cut the live feed in a move that immediately raised a stir on Twitter, with critics slamming it as censorship.
The political tensions of the past days have hurt the already slowing Turkish economy, pushing the national currency to hover around record lows against the US dollar.
Erdogan, who has responded to the investigation by sacking dozens of police chiefs, is expected to reshuffle his cabinet shortly in light of the corruption controversy.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who called for the government's resignation as soon as the scandal erupted, yesterday said the ministers' decision to quit came "too late".
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Istanbul since the scandal came out also calling on the government to step down.
Muslim cleric Gulen has denied being behind the controversial investigation. Gulenists were previously key backers of the AKP, helping it to win three elections in a row since 2002.
Turkey's local elections on March 30 are now being seen as a key indicator of where the political fault-lines lie throughout the country.