x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Bid to ban party may force Turkey election

Crisis in Istanbul after the arrest of state prosecutor who is accused of being in a group involved in military coup attempt.

ISTANBUL // In a development that could lead to a new attempt to ban Turkey's ruling party and to early parliamentary elections, the arrest of a state prosecutor linked to an alleged plot to stage a coup d'etat has sparked a severe crisis in Ankara, as the government and judiciary descend into a bitter row about alleged political interference into the work of judges and prosecutors. Faced with the possibility of a new trial before the constitutional court, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is preparing for snap elections, an unnamed high-ranking party official told yesterday's Radikal newspaper.

"In case a new trial to dissolve the party is launched, we will go to elections immediately," the official told the daily. The AKP would expect strong support from voters if it was threatened by a ban, the official said. Elections are not due until the summer of 2011, but they could be brought forward to this year, according to Radikal. The constitutional court came close to banning the religiously conservative AKP in 2008 for anti-secular activities. Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the prosecutor general who is known for his opposition to the party, has hinted that a new trial could be in the offing. He said in a statement this week that his office was investigating "whether the judiciary has come under political influence".

"He is thinking about closing down" the AKP, a newspaper headline said about the prosecutor general yesterday. The latest crisis erupted after the arrest this week of Ilhan Cihaner, the top prosecutor in the eastern Anatolian province of Erzincan. Mr Cihaner was accused by Osman Sanal, an antiterror prosecutor from the neighbouring province of Erzurum, of being a member of Ergenekon, a suspected right-wing organisation that prosecutors in Istanbul say tried to bring down the Erdogan government by staging a military coup. Dozens of suspects, among them retired and serving military officers, have been standing trial in Istanbul for creating and leading the organisation.

According to news reports, Mr Cihaner, known as a stout secularist who had investigated alleged activities of two Islamic groups in the region, is accused of closely co-operating with Dursun Cicek, a colonel of the military in Ankara who has been linked to Ergenekon. Forensic experts say the colonel signed a plan last year that mapped out a strategy to destabilise the government. One step in the plan was to plant weapons into facilities of peaceful Islamic groups to present them as violent extremists supporting the AKP. Mr Sanal started his investigations after hand grenades and other weapons were found in the Erzincan area late last year.

Following the arrest of Mr Cihaner, the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, or HSYK, an institution seen as a secularist bastion, made a move that escalated tensions further. Within hours, it stripped Mr Sanal and three other prosecutors of their powers to investigate the prosecutor. The HSYK also said it would bring criminal charges against the four and another prosecutor. Mr Cihaner, nevertheless, remains in custody.

Amid bitter arguments about whether or not the HSYK had the right to step in, the deepening polarisation of the government and its critics became obvious. The justice ministry said the HSYK had acted illegally, but top judges of the court of appeals and the highest administrative court supported the decision. The justice minister should read the law before commenting on the case, one judge snapped.

Abdullah Gul, the president, appealed to both sides in the row to come together and agree on a reform of the judiciary, a project demanded by the European Union, which Turkey wants to join. "This is a vicious circle," Mr Gul told reporters in Ankara. "Turkey has to get out of it fast. What has to be done for that is clear - a speedy judicial reform." But government critics and the AKP, to which Mr Gul belonged before he became president in an election that the judiciary tried to torpedo in 2007 - the president loses all party affiliations when he is elected to the post - are unlikely to find a consensus any time soon.

The crisis is a fresh example of the ongoing power struggle between Turkey's traditional secular elites in the military, the bureaucracy and the judiciary and a more observant group of Turks represented by the AKP. Secularists have accused the AKP of stacking the police with its supporters and of starting the same tactics in the judiciary. For its part, the AKP government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, says the high echelons of the judiciary misuse their power for political aims.

"State crisis", the Milliyet daily said in a front-page headline yesterday. The deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, told reporters in Ankara the HSYK had taken "a decision that turns legal norms upside down and smells of politics". Members of the judiciary who wished to become active politically "should take off their robes", he said. Some commentators and members of the judiciary critical of the HSYK compared the move against Mr Sanal with a controversial case against another prosecutor three years ago. Then, Ferhat Sarikaya, a prosecutor in Van in south-eastern Anatolia, was disrobed by the HSYK after he accused members of the military of being behind a deadly bomb attack in the town of Semdinli in 2005. The move against Mr Sarikaya was widely seen as an attempt to disrupt the investigation into the bomb attack.

tseibert@thenational.ae