ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey's top court has struck down legislation that would have shut thousands of private schools, dealing a blow to President Tayyip Erdogan's efforts to curb the influence of a cleric he has accused of covertly seeking to topple him.
Many of the schools are run by followers of U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, providing his Hizmet (Service) network with revenues and new recruits. The law was ushered through by Erdogan in 2014.
Erdogan accuses Gulen, whose followers wield influence in the police and judiciary, of concocting a corruption scandal in December 2013 in a bid to bring down his government.
Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and presides over a worldwide network of schools and businesses, denies plotting against the state.
Erdogan has made purging state institutions of "Gulenist" influence a priority, removing or reassigning hundreds of prosecutors and thousands of police officers deemed loyal to the cleric.
It is unclear how strongly his battle against what he variously calls a terrorist group or a "parallel state" can now be pursued, after the ruling AK Party he founded lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in a June 7 election.
Shutting the university-preparatory schools would have deprived Hizmet of one of its chief sources of financing. But in its ruling late on Monday, the constitutional court said the legislation violated freedom of education, the Hurriyet newspaper reported.
The decision marks a victory for the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which held a first round of coalition talks with the AKP on Monday. It had appealed to the constitutional court to overturn the legislation.
Pro-government media have said that Erdogan has made the continuation of the fight against the "parallel state" one of his conditions for any coalition deal.
Should Turkey's political parties be unable to agree a working coalition by late August, Erdogan has the right to call a snap election, widely seen as his preferred option as it may offer a chance for the AKP to regain its majority.
Erdogan said late on Monday, as coalition negotiations formally began, that the nation was growing impatient and that if no deal was reached quickly, a new vote would be necessary.
(Reporting by Gulsen Solaker and Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Nick Tattersall and Ayla Jean Yackley; editing by Ralph Boulton)