Erdogan may prevail against Turkish preacher Gülen, but at high political cost

January 14, 2014

(An ad with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan inside a metro train in Istanbul January 13, 2014. The slogan reads as “strong willpower”. REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan looks to have the upper hand in a civil war rocking Turkey’s political establishment, but his bid to break the influence of a potent Islamic cleric could roll back reforms and undermine hard-won business confidence.

What erupted a month ago as a damaging inquiry into alleged government corruption has spiraled into a battle over the judiciary with potentially much further-reaching consequences for the country’s international image and Erdogan’s own future.

“There is considerable risk of Turkey losing the gains in credibility and investment it has won in the past decade,” a senior Turkish banker said, declining to be named for fear of repercussions for publicly criticizing the government.

Despite fist fights in parliament, the opposition looks unable to prevent Erdogan’s plan to put the appointment of judges, held to be under the sway of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, more under government control.

In power since 2003, Erdogan has led what Ankara, the United States and Europe long held up as a potential model for Islamic democracy and stability for Arab states.

But a crackdown in June on anti-government protests and his response to the graft inquiry, his critics say, has betrayed increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

“Everyone knows that this plan to keep the judiciary under political control is not constitutional and is not democratic,” said Koray Caliskan, an associate political science professor at Istanbul’s Bogazici University.

The premier says the graft inquiry is an attempted “judicial coup” by a “parallel state”, a thinly veiled reference to Gülen‘s influence in the judiciary and police, and has purged hundreds of police officers deemed loyal to the cleric, whose followers see him as more progressive and pro-Western.

But while new police officers and judges may slow the graft inquiries, the shakeup could fuel opposition to Erdogan and lead Gülen – a former ally who helped Erdogan’s AK Party rise to power – to tacitly side with his opponents in an Istanbul election in March, a key test of the government’s popularity.

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