Lawsuit putting Turkey’s stability, reforms at risk

ANKARA – Turkey faces a lengthy period of political uncertainty that could undermine its economy and European Union entry bid after prosecutors launched a case to shut down the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for alleged Islamist activities. But many analysts predict the center-right, pro-business AKP will survive the legal challenge, which they characterize as the last stand of an unaccountable and discredited conservative secular elite out of step with modern Turkey. «There will be a period of uncertainty, but it is 90 percent certain the AKP government will survive this,» said William Hale, author of books on Turkish politics and now teaching at Istanbul’s Sabanci University. «The problem is it could all take as much as two years, though my impression is the court will act much more quickly in this particular case, perhaps within three to five months.» A top prosecutor asked the Constitutional Court on Friday to close the AKP and ban Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and some 70 other party officials from politics for five years on the grounds that they are trying to build an Islamic state. NATO member Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim but has a secular system. Its secularist elite, including the judges and army generals, has long accused the AKP of plotting to erode the separation of state and religion, a claim the government denies. Erdogan, Turkey’s most popular politician by far, has branded the lawsuit an attack on democracy and vowed to fight. Prosecutors have been weighing an indictment against the AKP for years, analysts say, but parliament’s recent decision to ease a ban on women students wearing the Muslim headscarf in universities gave them the crucial ammunition to act. Secularists see the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam while the government says it is a matter of individual freedom. The issue has deeply polarized Turkey and the Constitutional Court is due to rule shortly on whether that reform is legal. Dangerous distraction The move to ban AKP will rattle financial markets, already jittery over the global credit crunch, crank up political tensions and distract the government from urgent economic and political reforms sought by business and by the EU. «Regardless of its final outcome, the lawsuit will seriously affect political stability,» said Wolfango Piccoli, a Turkey expert at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. «If the court agrees to hear the case, then the choice will be between months of uncertainty followed by the case being dismissed (bad scenario) and months of uncertainty followed by the AKP being closed down and its leaders being banned from politics (disastrous scenario).» Much is at stake. The AKP has overseen strong economic growth, buttressed by funding deals with the International Monetary Fund and the launch of EU accession talks. AKP emerged at 2002 polls, a coalition of religious, center-right and nationalist elements. It swept to power as established «secularist» parties were crushed by a public weary of personal and factional in-fighting, weak economic stewardship, and graft. It won re-election with an increased majority in last July’s polls after the army and the courts unsuccessfully tried to block its candidate for president, Abdullah Gul, an ex-Islamist. Gul is among those the prosecutors want banned from politics. «We are seeing the struggle between an old order and an order still in the making. The old order is resisting change,» said Dogu Ergil, a professor at Ankara University, who like Hale predicted eventual victory for the AKP in the lawsuit. «The army failed to stop Gul becoming president and has now stepped aside… The judiciary is now taking up the challenge, but they cannot act in a vacuum. Turkey’s bourgeoisie is against this indictment, as are the EU and civilian organizations.» TUSIAD, the leading forum of Turkish business, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn both criticized the lawsuit over the weekend as inappropriate in a democratic state. Turkish courts have banned more than 20 parties over the years on allegations of Islamist or Kurdish separatist agendas. The army edged out a government seen as an Islamist threat as recently as 1997; but AKP, unlike that government, enjoys public support ranging beyond its heartland into the middle classes. Analysts said it had anyway become more difficult to ban parties since a 2001 law, and parties in Turkey have always circumvented such bans by regrouping under a new name. Potentially more serious is the attempt to ban from politics leading figures including Erdogan, who was jailed in the 1990s for publicly reciting a religious poem. If successful, such a move could create a serious vacuum in Turkish political life. «The government could make doubly certain by tweaking the constitution before the Constitutional Court has given its verdict,» said Hale, again citing historical precedents. Some analysts were less sanguine, saying the AKP’s defiant reaction to the lawsuit betrayed the kind of arrogance that had led it to overplay its hand over the headscarf issue and thus helped land the party in trouble in the first place. «The way the prime minister and other cabinet ministers are defying the principle of the rule of law is incredible,» said Hasan Unal of Ankara’s Gazi University. «The chief prosecutor has put together his case. Sober-minded people may say ‘it is not strong enough, we think we can win our case in court’ – but instead they are threatening him.» «This is a good opportunity for the AKP to express its commitment to secularism and democracy, otherwise we are swimming in dangerous waters,» said Unal.

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