, ANKARA, Nov 23 – Political tensions are mounting in Turkey ahead of an election charged year, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan embroiled in a bitter row with an influential Muslim leader over education.
The feud between Erdogan and Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self imposed exile in the United States, has exposed divisions in the Turkish strongman’s traditional religiously conservative power base.
Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for 11 years, faces a key test in local elections next March with his image bruised by mass street protests that erupted against his government in June.
Differences between the Islamist leaning Erdogan and Gulen, who remains a highly influential figure on the Turkish domestic scene, have long been simmering.
But the dispute burst out into the open this week after Erdogan’s government tried to close down a network of private schools run by Gulen’s Hizmet (Service) movement that aim to help students prepare for high school and university.
The premier said he wanted to abolish an “illegal” and unfair education system which he charged turned children into “competition horses”, and denied his government was targeting anyone in particular.
“Those who benefit from these courses are the kids of rich families in big cities,” said Erdogan, who himself hails from humble roots and has tried to burnish an image as a man of the people during his term in office.
Hizmet as well as the secular opposition and teachers have reacted angrily to the move.
It has also sown dissent within Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), with one lawmaker facing expulsion for breaking ranks.
“What crime have we committed to justify being closed,” demanded a front page headline in the Zaman newspaper, mouthpiece for the Gulen movement.
Gulen himself reportedly likening the government action to the coups staged by the powerful military which considers itself the guardians of the secular state.
Relations deteriorated during wave of protests
Gulen, 72, has been living in exile in the United States since 1999 to escape charges of plotting against the secular state in Turkey.
His powerful network describes itself as a global social and cultural movement inspired by Islamic ideals.
It is especially active in education, with around 4,000 of the so called prep schools in Turkey as well as more than 500 schools around the world.
Hizmet risks losing millions of dollars in revenue if the government succeeds in closing the Turkish establishments, which offer education to supplement normal schooling.
The first signs of disagreement between Erdogan and Gulen appeared in early 2012 over the role of Turkey’s spy chief Hakan Fiden and relations deteriorated during the wave of demonstrations against the government in June.
Gulen’s sympathisers accused Erdogan of overreacting to the protests and his movement has increasingly sided with President Abdullah Gul who adopted a more conciliatory stance towards the demonstrators and fellow AKP stalwart, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc.
Some observers say Erdogan’s move against Gulen’s network is a show of strength ahead of the local elections in March, a presidential ballot in August and parliamentary polls in 2015.
“The differences between the movement and the AKP are crystal clear now,” said Deniz Zeyrek, a columnist for the liberal daily Radikal.
“How the Gulen movement might fare at the ballot box is not known but what is certain is that it has the potential to shake things up.”
Erdogan is believed to have set his sights on the presidency if the constitution is changed to give the post US-style executive powers.
Media reports say Gulen wants Gul to serve as prime minister if Erdogan becomes president, while Erdogan is hoping to appoint Fidan.