Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is right to fear cleric Fetullah Gulen and his Hizmet movement, but the recent failed coup has given him a golden opportunity to crush them for good. Erdoğan never tolerated the continued existence of serious rivals, and the Gulenists had long outlived their usefulness to him. Since being elected in 2003, Erdoğan has systematically co-opted, weakened, or destroyed every alternative power base throughout Turkey. Like other populist authoritarians such as Putin, Erdoğan centralized executive control in the name of nationalism, economic growth, ethnic pride, and an appeal to memories of past imperial and religious glory. This has worked well for him, and, like Putin, he will continue to eliminate any threats to his vision for the state and society, including fighting the Gulenists no matter the cost.
In 2003, after Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) first won national elections, Gulen and his Hizmet movement had been their allies and coordinated to dismantle the threat of the secular military to a more religious Turkish state. Erdoğan was given increased powers, and Gulen’s movement gained followers and influence in the civil service, especially among the judiciary and police. Four times in modern Turkey’s history, the military had led a coup to restore institutional stability or to prevent the Islamification of the state. Erdoğan had been a member of a previous party toppled by a coup in 1997 and saw the military as a threat ever since. Gulen also feared the military and fled Turkey to live in the U.S. shortly after the 1997 coup. Thus, it is no surprise that Erdoğan and Gulen saw the importance of taming the military, which they did with a series of show trials with trumped-up evidence of an alleged coup. Hundreds of officers were sentenced, and the top military leadership was replaced, securing Erdoğan’s control of the armed forces.
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