New anti-government protests to challenge Erdogan

AFP , Friday 27 Dec 2013

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters as he leaves a mosque after Friday prayers in Ankara December 27, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Protesters calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were due out in force again Friday as a mounting political crisis forced the Turkish lira down to record lows.

Demonstrators planned to take to the streets in Ankara and Istanbul, as the government scrambled to contain a graft probe that has posed the biggest threat to Erdogan's 11-year rule.

Pro-government media has suggested the corruption inquiry -- which forced Erdogan to reshuffle his government after three ministers quit and has implicated his own son -- could be a setup to trigger a military coup.

But the army, seen as guarantor of the country's secular traditions, made it clear Friday it would not get involved.

"The Turkish Armed Forces do not want to get involved in political debates," the army said in a statement posted on its website.

As the lira plunged to 2.1764 to the dollar in mid-morning, trading on the Istanbul stock exchange, the BIST 100, dropped 4.3 percent by early afternoon, after having dropped 2.33 percent Thursday and 4.2 percent Wednesday.

The major Turkish daily, the Hurriyet, said the graft investigation had created a "bomb effect" in markets.

"The situation in Turkey is severe to say the least ... also because massive uncertainty has taken hold which is unlikely to subside in the near future," said Markus Huber, senior trader at London broker Peregrine and Black.

The backdrop to the crisis is a power struggle between Erdogan and former ally Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Turkish cleric who is hugely influential at home and whose followers hold key positions in the judiciary and the police.

"The cabinet reshuffle may contain the fire for now but it will not put it out," wrote columnist Huseyin Gulerce in the Zaman daily affiliated with Gulen.

Erdogan is seen as increasingly struggling to limit damage and hold onto power, and his unstated hopes of running for president in 2014.

He has ordered the sacking of dozens of police officers believed linked to Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999.

On Friday, in yet another twist to the political crisis, Turkey's top court blocked implementation of a government decree ordering police to inform their superiors before launching investigations issued by public prosecutors, local media reported.

The government decree was introduced last week after police conducted raids targeting senior figures including the sons of ministers and businessmen as part of the fast-moving corruption inquiry.

Erdogan on Friday again alleged that the corruption probe amounted to a "smear campaign" orchestrated by outside forces bent on undermining his administration and the country's economy.

"There are outside powers behind this," he said in a speech to supporters of his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the northwestern city of Sakarya.

"The target of the attack is Turkey whose economy is growing ... and whose weight in the world increases," he said.

This followed statements last weekend when Erdogan charged that "some ambassadors are engaged in provocative actions" and "we dont have to keep you in our country" -- all seen as a veiled threat to US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone.

Pro-government newspapers, meanwhile, went straight for Ricciardone, saying: "Get out of this country" .

The headlines were in stark contrast to the mood in May when Erdogan hailed the Turkish-US partnership during a visit to NATO-ally Washington.

The US State Department on Friday criticised these "baseless attacks" and said it had made its concerns known to Turkish authorities.

"We find the continued baseless attacks by some elements of the Turkish media against our ambassador ... to be deeply disturbing," said spokesperson Jen Psaki in a statement sent to AFP.

"Turkish officials have assured us that they do not credit such false accusations against American officials, including Ambassador Ricciardone," the statement said.

The scandal has weighed down on the local currency and fuelled anti-government sentiment brewing since the mass protests that engulfed the country in June.

"In order for the lira and Turkish stocks to end their harsh descent, decisive leadership will be needed and credible measures taken which will appease foreign investors and the Turkish population alike," said London trader Huber.

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