(Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania in this December 28, 2004 file photo. REUTERS/Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily)
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has won three general elections, weathered summer riots, subdued a meddling army and changed Turkey like few leaders before him in a decade in power.
But a rift with an enigmatic U.S.-based Islamic preacher, whose quiet influence in the police, secret services and judiciary looms large over the Turkish state, threatens to shake his hold on power ahead of elections next year.
The powerful network of Fethullah Gülen, who leads a worldwide Islamic movement from a forested compound in the United States, had helped Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party win a growing share of the vote in three successive elections.
“This is a nasty and bloody divorce,” wrote Kadri Gursel, a columnist critical of the government but who writes for the broadly pro-Erdogan Milliyet daily.
Summer protests and riots in central Istanbul underlined growing concern especially among secularists about Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style of government.
Recent months have also brought into the open conflicts with Gülen’s “Hizmet” (Service) movement. Chief focus in recent weeks has been a government plan to abolish private “prep” schools, many financed and run by Gülen, on the grounds they give unfair advantage to wealthy parents.
Gülen has set up schools across Africa, the Middle East, the United States and Asia. They are a key source of income but also a powerful instrument of influence, especially in Turkey, creating a network of elite contacts and personal loyalties.
The Hizmet movement is widely seen as having helped break the grip of the army, self-appointed guardians of secularism, over Turkish politics, arguably Erdogan’s greatest achievement, through its influence in the judiciary, with hundreds of officers convicted on coup plot charges.
Erdogan has built his own body of wealthy loyalists since he came to power in 2002, largely from the same religiously-minded professional class that revere Gülen, but a rift between the two risks fracturing that support base as polls approach.