ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s top court agreed on Monday to hear a case to shut down the ruling party for Islamist activity and bar the prime minister from office, heralding months of political and economic instability in the EU candidate state.
The Constitutional Court’s decision marks an escalation of a long-running feud between the Islamist-rooted AK Party and a powerful secular elite, including army generals, that accuses AK of plotting to turn secular Turkey into an Iran’style theocracy.
The AK Party, which has presided over strong economic growth and democratic political reforms since sweeping to power in 2002, denies the charges it has an Islamist agenda and says the lawsuit is an attack on Turkish democracy.
The petition, drawn up by the chief prosecutor of the Court of Appeals, calls for 71 AK Party officials including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul to be banned from politics for five years.
After a lengthy meeting, the Constitutional Court’s 11 judges decided in a rare unanimous ruling to take up the case for closing the AK Party and for barring Erdogan and dozens of other lawmakers from politics.
The court’s deputy head, Osman Paksut, said in a short televised statement that seven of the 11 judges voted in favor of considering the call to bar President Gul from politics–enough to bring him too within the scope of the investigation.
Eight of the 11 judges were appointed by Gul’s predecessor, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunchly secularist foe of the AK Party.
"The general feeling is that we’re tilting towards closure of the AK Party, meaning a chaotic political and economic outlook," veteran commentator Mehmet Ali Birand told Reuters.
"I don’t believe Erdogan will give up, he will fight to the end. This is all-out war. It doesn’t look good."
The lira currency and the Istanbul stock market, already battered by the political tensions and by the global credit crunch, weakened further after the court announcement.
Turkish business leaders have criticized the lawsuit as harmful to stability and the European Union, which Turkey aspires to join, has also expressed its concerns.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said at the weekend that trying to shut the AK Party could jeopardize Ankara’s EU entry talks. He said the only grounds for considering a ban on a political party were if it practiced or advocated violence or sought the violent overthrow of the democratic system.
On Monday, Rehn’s spokeswoman’said the Commission needed more information before commenting on the court’s decision.
The AK Party will now have to draw up its defense against the allegations that it has engaged in Islamist activities aimed at weakening the secular state.
The court case is likely to drag on for many months.
The AK Party, which won 47 percent of the vote in last year’s election, has said it may try to change the constitution to make it more difficult to ban political parties and then seek a referendum on the changes.
In the AK Party’s first public reaction to the court decision on Monday, deputy leader Nihat Ergun said: "There is a need for a regulation that broadens the political arena by rectifying the system for shutting down parties."
Opposition parties say changing the constitution while a case is pending would be dangerously provocative and possibly illegal and have vowed to resist such a move.
Some Turkish media have described the lawsuit as a "judicial coup" against the AK Party after the secularists failed to block the party’s choice of Gul–like Erdogan a former Islamist–for the presidency last year.
Analysts say the government’s decision to push for an easing of a ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf at university was what prompted the prosecutor’s move.
Secularists see the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam. The AK Party says easing the ban is a matter of religious freedom and it claims strong public support for the move in a country where about two thirds of women cover their heads.
The Constitutional Court is due to rule shortly on an appeal from the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) on whether lifting the headscarf ban violates the constitution.
The court could still throw out the case against the AK Party, but analysts say Monday’s unanimous verdict sounds an ominous note for Erdogan’s government.
Turkey has banned more than 20 political parties over the years for alleged Islamist or Kurdish separatist activities.
The army, with broad public support, edged out a government deemed too Islamist as recently as 1997, but the AK Party is much more popular. The army has not commented on the lawsuit.