ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan suffered a public rebuke from a senior minister and long-time ally on Friday over his criticism of mixed-sex student housing, signaling a growing rift in the ruling AK Party ahead of elections next year.
Erdogan suggested this week that regulations be drawn up to stop male and female students living together. His comments caused uproar in Turkey, where critics fear encroachment of Islamic religious influence on the affairs of a secular state.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, also government spokesman and a co-founder of the AK Party, had previously denied press reports that Erdogan had made such a suggestion during a closed-door party meeting at the weekend.
In an unusually blunt riposte, Arinc said in an interview on state broadcaster TRT on Friday that Erdogan had left the government unnecessarily open to criticism.
"I would like to make a call to our prime minister as a friend and brother that there is a clear contradiction between his speech as prime minister and my statement as the government spokesman," he said.
"I am not responsible for this contradiction."
It is not the first time Arinc has appeared at odds with Erdogan, who bristles at criticism of his style of governance and particularly loathes public challenges to his authority.
Where the prime minister dismissed participants in anti-government protests over the summer as looters and oversaw a heavy-handed police crackdown, Arinc offered an olive branch, apologizing for police excesses.
Both men are founders, along with President Abdullah Gul, of the AK party which has run Turkey for the past decade. But their increasingly public disagreements have raised speculation of a damaging rift as the AKP gears up for a cycle of local, presidential and general elections over the next two years.
"We are brothers in arms, rowing in the same boat," Arinc said, defending his status in the Party in a way that seemed to suggest to Erdogan he had support that should be heeded.
"My responsibility in government is not just as a minister. I am not just a minister who occupies a post. I am someone who represents the opinions and thoughts, the past, the present and the future of this party. This is how everyone sees me."
AK was founded in 2001 from an assembly of Islamist, center-right and nationalist elements. Critics say that since Erdogan's third electoral victory in 2011, he has increasingly tended to the Islamist wing from which he hails.
DELICATE BALANCE OF POWER
Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan has earned praise for reforms aimed at bringing the EU candidate nation closer to European Union norms and for liberalizing an economy that has seen unprecedented prosperity.
He has brought powerful generals to heel in a country which saw three outright military coups and an Islamist-led government forced from power in the second half of the 20th century, and remains Turkey's most charismatic leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the secular republic 90 years ago.
But his uncompromising and emotional manner and his reluctance to tolerate dissenting voices, including at times those around him, has led to growing concern within parts of the AKP, according to those familiar with the party.
"Defending Erdogan is becoming ever more difficult and the rational minds in the party are realizing this," one source close to the government said.
Erdogan cannot run again as prime minister in general elections in 2015 according to AKP rules, and had been long expected to stand for a newly-created executive presidency; but his plans to establish such an enhanced role have stalled.
Many analysts expect him to stand for the presidency under the terms of the current constitution as part of an agreement under which Gul, seen along with Arinc as one of the AKP's more moderate senior figures, would become prime minister.
But others warn Erdogan's dominant character could make such an agreement, which would see Erdogan constitutionally take a back seat, difficult to reach.
"Many in the AKP are unhappy with the direction the prime minister is taking the party, but few have the strength to speak publicly about it," said Ihsan Yilmaz, professor of political science at Fatih University and a columnist at the conservative Today's Zaman newspaper.
"However, some like Bulent Arinc and Abdullah Gul are able to speak more openly and Erdogan can't just eliminate them."