Turkish High Court Bans Islamist Opposition Party

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This country's highest court banned the Islamist opposition Virtue Party on Friday in a ruling likely to trigger a new bout of political uncertainty and delay efforts to end Turkey's worst financial crisis in recent years.

The Constitutional Court voted 8 to 3 to outlaw Virtue "for activities contrary to the principles of the secular republic." The ruling against the country's largest opposition party cannot be appealed.

The 11-member court also expelled two Virtue lawmakers from parliament, including Nazli Ilicak, who led a movement to abolish a law under which women are forbidden to wear Islamic head scarves in public buildings.

Five Virtue leaders, including Ilicak, were barred from politics for five years on charges of promoting that effort and others to give Islamic traditions, dress and worship a more prominent place in public life.

The party's leaders denounced the ruling as anti-democratic.

"A shadow has fallen over Turkey's democracy once again," said Abdullah Gul, a prominent Virtue politician and member of parliament. "A party that neither committed nor encouraged crimes has been closed down."

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said he was "saddened" by the ruling but would respect it.

Virtue is the fourth pro-Islamic party to have been banned since the founding of the Islamic movement 32 years ago in this predominantly Muslim but officially secular nation of 65 million people. Western nations view Turkey as a bulwark against radical Islam.

The country's politically powerful armed forces have led the campaign against political Islam. Their vocal criticism played a key role in ousting modern Turkey's first and only Islamist-led government, in 1997, on charges of seeking to introduce religious rule. Necmettin Erbakan, who resigned as prime minister then, was later barred from politics for five years and his Welfare Party shut down.

The Islamists regrouped under Virtue, led by an avuncular septuagenarian, Recai Kutan. His effort to distance the party from the militant rhetoric of its predecessor, including its calls for Turkey to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, failed to impress the secular establishment.

Vural Savas, who as Turkey's chief prosecutor sought the ban on Virtue in May 1999, likened party members in his 1,000-page indictment to "bloodsucking vampires" and "malignant tumors."

Friday's ruling ordered the Treasury to confiscate the party's property but was light on individual members.

Had the court expelled more than 20 Virtue lawmakers from parliament, it would have pushed the number of vacant seats above a 5% threshold and triggered new elections. This, in turn, would have derailed a reform program backed by the International Monetary Fund to rescue the Turkish economy.

But the ruling caused enough political upheaval to throw the reform package into uncertainty. Many of its provisions require parliament's approval.

The Turkish lira lost about half its value against the U.S. dollar in a financial crisis earlier this year. Thousands of companies have since failed, and more than half a million Turks have lost their jobs. Political analysts say the hardships could benefit extremist parties, be they Islamist, leftist, nationalist or ethnic Kurdish.

An immediate question is where the remaining 100 Virtue lawmakers in parliament will turn.

Should they join existing parties represented in parliament, they could upset the balance holding Turkey's three-party coalition of leftists and rightists in power.

The popularity of Ecevit's Party of the Democratic Left and others in the coalition has declined sharply since the financial crisis. According to polls, most Turks would prefer to be led by Kemal Dervis, the new economy minister and former World Bank official, or by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Istanbul's Islamist former mayor. Polls put them neck and neck.

In 1998, Erdogan was banned from office and politics for life and jailed for six months on charges of inciting a religious rebellion by reciting in public a nationalist poem that is taught in state schools.

Claiming that an amnesty law expunged his offenses last year, Erdogan is putting together a new political party. Supporters say it is backed by more than 70 of Virtue's lawmakers in parliament and most of its provincial branches.

Eager to portray himself as a pragmatic centrist rather than a religious zealot, Erdogan declared recently that Turkey is in need not of "men with well-groomed beards who can recite the Koran perfectly" but of people capable of running the country efficiently. Chances are, however, that the courts will rule against Erdogan once again and keep him on the sidelines.

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