Top court rules against closing the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) for undermining secularism.
Turkey's ruling party escapes ban
ISTANBUL // Turkey's constitutional court, in a decision designed to keep the country on its secular tracks while avoiding further political upheaval, rejected a ban of the governing party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but sternly warned the government to seek a broader social consensus in thorny questions touching the relationship between the state and the religious beliefs of its citizens. "The AK Party has not been banned," Hasim Kilic, the president of the constitutional court, told reporters yesterday after three days of deliberations of the country's 11 highest judges in Ankara. Consequently, Mr Erdogan, the prime minister, can stay at the helm of his government. The prosecution had demanded that Mr Erdogan and other leading politicians of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, be barred from politics for five years. The trial against the AKP, a party with roots in political Islam, has been watched closely in Europe and in the Middle East because of its significance for the question of how Islam and a western-style democracy can be brought together. Turkey, born from the ashes of the Ottoman empire after the First World War with a population that is 99 per cent Muslim, is a candidate for EU membership, a member of Nato and the Council of Europe as well as of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Mr Erdogan's AKP government is credited with making Turkey more democratic by adopting a string of political reforms in recent years. Nonetheless, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the chief prosecutor, charged the AKP with being a "focal point for anti-secular activities" and asked the court to dissolve the party. The AKP rejected the accusations and said the trial was a politically motivated vendetta by Turkey's Kemalist elites, who see themselves as heirs to the secular values of the state's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Kemalists are concerned about the rise of a middle class of more observant Muslims led by Mr Erdogan. Six of the 11 judges agreed with Mr Yalcinkaya's call to shut the AKP down, but the votes of seven judges would have been necessary for that. Instead, the court decided to cut state funds for the AKP, a largely symbolic move as Mr Erdogan's group can fall back on a range of rich backers. Mr Kilic also said the court had issued "a serious warning" against the AKP. Details of the court's warning were not immediately available and will be published with the written reasoning of the decision in the coming weeks. But Mr Kilic indicated that the warning will touch upon the conduct of the AKP in the political arena. "We see a very grave tension within society," he said. "I believe that after today, efforts to ease those tensions will be made in Turkey's political life." Critics have accused Mr Erdogan of focusing too much on the religious values his party stands for, ever since he won a landslide election last year, when the AKP raked in 47 per cent of the vote. His decision to go ahead with a plan to allow female students to wear the Islamic headscarf at universities without seeking an agreement with Kemalist groups triggered Mr Yalcinkaya's trial against the AKP. The constitutional court cancelled the headscarf decision last month. A ban of the AKP could have heightened tensions in Turkey because it would have spelled the end of Mr Erdogan's government and because early elections would have been almost unavoidable. The AKP, by far Turkey's biggest political party, is the only political force that has won elections and parliamentary seats in all four corners of the country. It was the first time in Turkish history that a trial was launched against the governing party. The court dissolved the Islamic Welfare Party of the former prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, in Jan 1998, half a year after Mr Erbakan's government lost power under pressure from the military. Only minutes after Mr Kilic made his announcement, AKP politicians welcomed the verdict. "It will give society a chance to take a deep breath," said Ertrugrul Gunay, the culture and tourism minister. Representatives of Turkey's business world also reacted positively. Guler Sabanci, head of Sabanci Holding and one of the most influential businesswomen in the country, said the court's decision opened the way for "a period that brings hope in the name of social consensus". Shares at Istanbul's stock exchanges had already risen before Mr Kilic's announcement, as many investors expected a decision that would not threaten economic stability. The leading stock index closed at 41,342 points, up 2,189 points from Tuesday. The European Union, which had warned of serious consequences for Turkey's membership bid if the AKP were banned, welcomed the verdict as well. "The ruling by the Turkish constitutional court not to ban the AKP is good news," said a spokesman for Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, in Brussels. "Of course, we have to read it now in detail, but it is positive." Joost Lagendijk, a leading deputy from the European parliament, said in a statement he felt "very relieved". Mr Erdogan's Kemalist opponents were far less jubilant. Deniz Baykal, the opposition leader, said 10 of the 11 judges had defined the AKP as a centre of anti-secular activities, even if the party had not been banned. The army chief, Gen Yasar Buyukanit, said the military would remain an institution committed to Ataturk's values. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org