Turkey’s parliament has passed a bill to close down thousands of private schools, many of which are run by an influential Muslim cleric locked in a bitter feud with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The move will strike a blow to Erdogan’s ally-turned-rival Fethullah Gulen, whose schools are a major source of income, as he stands accused of seeking to topple the government with a damaging corruption scandal.
The bill, which was approved late on Friday, sets Sept. 1 next year as the deadline to close down the network of schools.
“Withdraw your kids from their schools,” Erdogan told a boisterous crowd of his Justice and Development Party supporters at an election rally in Turkey’s southwest city of Denizli on Saturday. “State schools are enough for you.”
There are about 4,000 private schools in Turkey, including an unknown number of preparatory schools run by the movement of the now US-based Gulen.
Tensions have long simmered between Erdogan and Gulen, who once worked hand-in-hand as Turkey’s conservative pro-business middle class rose at the expense of the military and former secular elite.
Yet the friction reached breaking point in November last year, when Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government first floated the idea of shutting down the schools, which aim to help students prepare for high school and university.
Erdogan said at the time that he wanted to abolish an unfair education system.
“Those who benefit from these courses are the kids of rich families in big cities,” said the prime minister, who himself hails from humble roots and has tried to cultivate an image as a man of the people during his time in office.
Eyup Kilci, deputy principal of the Gulen-affiliated Guvender school network in Ankara, condemned the new legislation, telling reporters that it gives Turkey the unenviable distinction of being “the only country which bans education activities.”
Erdogan’s feud with Gulen escalated in mid-December last year, when dozens of the prime minister’s political and business allies were detained in police raids on allegations of bribery in construction projects, gold smuggling and illicit dealings with Iran.
Erdogan accused the so-called Gulenists implanted in Turkey’s police and judiciary of instigating the corruption probe in a bid to undermine his government ahead of local elections scheduled for March 30 and presidential elections in August. He retaliated by sacking hundreds of police and prosecutors believed to be linked to Gulen.
The scandal, which brought down four ministers and prompted a Cabinet reshuffle, has evolved into the most serious challenge yet to Erdogan since his party came to power in 2002.
Last week, the graft controversy widened to directly implicate Erdogan after recordings were leaked online in which he can allegedly be heard discussing hiding large sums of cash and conspiring to extort a bribe from a business associate.
The incriminating tapes have prompted the opposition to call for Erdogan’s resignation, while angry residents have staged protests against government corruption.
In a fresh rally on Saturday, about 600 protesters took to the streets in Ankara shouting: “They are thieves” and “Government, resign.”
Some demonstrators were seen handing out fake euros in a mocking reference to the leaked audio tapes, which the government insists were fabricated and have not been independently verified.
At another election rally in the northwestern city of Kirklareli, Erdogan accused Gulen loyalists of “espionage” that threatened national security and warned that they would pay a “heavy price.”
“They wiretapped Turkey’s very confidential and very strategic conversations, and disclosed them to other [enemies],” he said. “Can there be such treachery and lowness?”
Observers say that Gulen’s Hizmet movement risks losing millions of dollars in revenue once its Turkish educational institutions are closed down under the new legislation.
In other attempts to contain the political crisis, Erdogan’s government has recently pushed through legislation tightening state control over the Internet and the judiciary, raising questions at home and abroad about the state of democracy in Turkey.
Gulen, who has been living in the US since 1999 to escape charges of plotting against the secular state by the then-Turkish government, has denied any involvement in the corruption probe.
The Hizmet movement also runs an estimated 500 private schools elsewhere around the world.