Turkey’s ruling AK Party has long been at loggerheads with the secularist establishment, including army generals, judges and academics.
The decision by an Ankara heavy penalty court, that ran counter to a no-trial recommendation by a prosecutor, came as a surprise and traders said the news briefly reversed a buying trend in the Turkish market, fueling sales in Turkish bonds.
“It is the rule in the Turkish Republic’s constitution and laws that everyone should stand trial,” the court ruled.
Gul’s office rejected the court’s ruling, saying that the constitution allowed the president to be put on trial only for treason.
A court of appeals now will have the final say.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party have been accused of corruption by the secularist opposition who could use the case as fresh ammunition against a party they bitterly oppose and accuse of harboring a hidden political Islam.
The AK Party, which swept to power after the collapse of traditional parties in 2002 following corruption allegations and economic mismanagement, has rejected charges of graft.
Political passions are already running high in Turkey over a separate investigation into an alleged right-wing group accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Some hardline secularists see it as part of a strategy to break the power of military and courts and promote Islamist rule.
The AK Party ended the traditional parties’ decades-old grip on power when it swept into government with a huge majority in 2002. A failed 2008 court attempt to close the AK Party plunged Turkey into political chaos and hurt markets.
The fraud case dates back to the late 1990s, when the Islamist Welfare Party, a predecessor to the AK Party, was accused of misappropriating funds from the Treasury.
Former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who was pushed out with the help of the military in 1997 on accusations he pursued an Islamist agenda, was found guilty five years ago for the same fraud case. Gul pardoned him last year.
Critics accuse the AK Party, which embraces center-right elements and nationalists as well as religious conservatives, of violating Turkey’s secular principles. The AK Party denies this and points to economic successes and liberal political and economic reforms aimed at bringing Turkey into the EU.
Gul, like Erdogan, denies any Islamist ambitions.