- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

ISTANBUL | Turkey’s highest court on Wednesday narrowly rejected an indictment to outlaw the nation’s ruling party for Islamist activities - ending months of turmoil that had paralyzed the NATO ally, frightened foreign investors and stalled the nation’s bid to join the European Union.

The case reflected a split between pious Muslims with a Western-oriented reform agenda, who control parliament, and strict secularists who control the military and judiciary.

The court decision is likely to have repercussions in many nations throughout the Muslim world, where Islamic groups are vying for greater political participation.

“Had the party been banned, it would have had a devastating impact on other such groups in the region,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey specialist and professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

After 30 hours of debate, six judges voted in favor of banning the Justice and Development Party (AKP), one shy of seven votes needed in the 11-member Constitutional Court.

The court also rejected prosecutors’ demands to oust Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul from office and impose on both a five-year ban from political activity.

The court instead agreed to fine the AKP, with all but one judge voting to remove half the party’s state funding, or about $15 million annually.

“There’s only one word to describe my reaction to the decision,” said Koksal Toptan, AKP’s speaker in parliament: “Phew.”

Edibe Sozen, a senior member of the government, which has its roots in political Islam, said she was “delighted.”

“Turkey’s democracy will be strengthened by this decision, I have no doubt about that,” she said as she walked toward AKP’s Ankara-based headquarters to celebrate with her colleagues.

The closure case was sparked by AKP’s efforts in February to end a ban on head scarves in universities, which shocked the military and judiciary in the predominantly Muslim nation with a staunchly secularist constitution.

Since a senior prosecutor brought the indictment in mid-March, politics here have been paralyzed, the country’s bid for EU membership has stalled and tensions between pious and secular-minded Turks have pushed to a boiling point.

“Turkey desperately needed an immediate lowering of pressure,” Minister of Culture Ertugrul Gunay told the private television CNN-Turk. “I think this decision will help with that.”

Since it was set up in 1963, the 11-judge Constitutional Court has outlawed 24 parties. Members of two of those parties form the bulk of the AKP, which retains an Islamic orientation but is credited with reforms that have helped attract foreign investment and expand the economy.

The court is packed with judges appointed by a fiercely secularist former president, and many Turks expected it to outlaw the party.

Political uncertainties created by the case, as well as earlier tensions between the party and the country’s military and judiciary, have taken a toll.

Foreign direct investment, worth $20 billion last year, has slumped to $6 billion thus far in 2008.

Turkey also faces a terrorist threat, with 17 people killed in a bombing in Istanbul on Sunday.

Reaction from Europe, where senior politicians had warned about a suspension of Turkey’s EU membership bid, was especially upbeat.

“Turkey is living a very tense situation, and we very much hope that the decision … will contribute to restore political stability,” said Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

The AKP received a milder censure, with 10 of 11 judges voting to fine the party while expressing concern for the way AKP has behaved since it won 47 percent of the votes during elections last year.

“This ruling represents a serious warning to the party, and I hope this conclusion will be evaluated and actions will be taken accordingly,” court spokesman Hasim Kilic said before giving the verdict.

“The AKP has a lot of lessons to learn from the ruling,” said Atilla Kart, a senior member of the staunchly secularist main opposition party.

“I hope [senior party members] remember the content of the speeches that were made after last year’s electoral victory,” he added, referring to Mr. Erdogan’s promise to be a party for all Turks.

Unsuccessful attempts to enact a law allowing female university students to wear head scarves was not the only mistake AKP has made.

Many centrist voters who backed the party for its management abilities have become disillusioned, saying the AKP’s reform agenda has stalled.

“The government has not passed a single reform worth its salt in two years,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey analyst for Human Rights Watch. “Its first step must be to revive the long-stalled human rights reform agenda.”

Bulent Aliriza of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies reacted cautiously to the decision.

“How did Churchill put it? ‘This is the end of the beginning,’” he said.

While it is less powerful than in the past, Turkey’s secularist establishment shows few signs of accepting the model of “democratic secularism” that AKP proposed in its defense to the Constitutional Court.

“The key word here is transformation,” Mr. Aliriza said. “Turkey’s old political model has been shown to be out of date. But there is still no consensus on what might replace it.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said after the ruling that the U.S. would continue to work with the government and encourage it to “reinvigorate its efforts with the EU.”

The split between pious Muslims and strict secularists dates back to a decision by Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to set up a strictly secular system amid the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

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