Turkey’s new battle over old schism

Times Staff Writer

When Turkey’s highest court convenes today to weigh whether the country’s ruling party should be shut down, the dry and formal language of the courtroom will mask a struggle that has bedeviled this republic since its tumultuous founding nearly 85 years ago.

In an overwhelmingly Muslim but avowedly secular state, the legal confrontation illuminates the deep divide between the devout and those who are determined to keep displays of piety from public life.

In the most drastic outcome, the Constitutional Court could outlaw the ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, for anti-secular activity. It could also ban dozens of senior party leaders, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from participating in politics for five years.

Analysts say even lesser sanctions such as financial penalties could trigger months of political upheaval.


Already, a buzz of angry polarization is reverberating on Turkey’s urban boulevards and in crowded village bazaars. The language of the two sides is strikingly similar, with both believing that the curtailment of their own freedoms is at stake.

“I just want to live my life as I choose -- no mullahs, no head scarves,” said student Aliye Mirza, teetering along Istanbul’s main shopping thoroughfare on precariously high pink stilettos. “The court has to protect our rights.”

Strolling through the fish market on a nearby side street was a 27-year-old businessman and his wife -- he in a neat polo shirt and khakis, she in a Muslim head scarf and a long robe. They described themselves as religiously devout.

“We want to raise our family in accordance with our beliefs -- that’s all,” said the man, who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Acar. “We are not trying to impose the way we live on others.”

A court ruling is expected to come fairly soon. Court officials have indicated they expect a verdict by mid-August.

The party has said it hopes to see the matter settled quickly, warning that the paralysis is hurting the economy.

An important military meeting scheduled for the beginning of August also would be clouded if the case is unresolved at that point.

Both sides worry that the diplomatic stature of Turkey, which has asserted itself as a mediator of regional disputes, has been compromised by the court battle.

The dispute has also dented Turkey’s once-soaring hopes of joining the European Union.

Erdogan, who has staunchly defended his party’s record during his five years in power, says the charges are politically motivated. The prime minister appeared in a weekend interview to be trying to stave off all-out confrontation with the secular camp.

The AKP overwhelmingly won last summer’s elections, running mainly on a platform of economic development. However, it caused an uproar this year when it attempted to toss out a ban on head scarves at public universities. That set the current case in motion, with the party standing accused by prosecutors of harboring an Islamist agenda that runs counter to Turkey’s secular constitution.

“Of course we made mistakes. . . . This is possible,” the prime minister told the mass-circulation newspaper Hurriyet in an interview published Saturday. “We need to restore social harmony.”

But Erdogan, whose options in the event of a ban would include dissolving the government, calling early elections and possibly garnering an even bigger victory than before, also warned that the court was accountable to the will of the Turkish people -- and to outside opinion as well.

“The 1.5-billion-strong Muslim world is watching us to see how we accommodate religion and secularism,” he told Hurriyet.

Turkish courts and officials have banned political parties in the past, about 20 times in all. But banned parties have often simply reconstituted themselves under another name, and the AKP would probably do the same. The current party is a more moderate offshoot of an Islamist party that was outlawed in the 1990s.

Handicapping the case’s outcome has become something of a national pastime. The court’s options include clearing the party of the charges; outlawing it but not its individual members; or revoking its government funding, which would force the AKP to pay back millions of dollars in subsidies; or simply warning it to stay within the constitution’s guidelines.

Before deliberating, the court is given the advice of an independent observer who studies the case. This month, the observer urged against closing the party, but such recommendations are nonbinding, and the court has ignored them in the past.

Turkey’s judiciary and military consider themselves guardians of the secular system, which could bode ill for the AKP. The Constitutional Court was widely seen as putting the AKP on notice this year when it reversed the government on the emotionally charged head scarf issue.

Even some strong defenders of secularism have warned of far-reaching consequences if the court unseats a democratically elected government that was handed a five-year term by voters only a year ago.

“Is closure really the best solution?” prominent analyst and television personality Mehmet Ali Birand wrote in a column last week in the Turkish Daily News.

He chided both sides for acting like rabid soccer fans rather than dispassionately weighing the facts.

“Who can guarantee that AKP and Erdogan will not be even more determined and ambitious when they manage to squeeze out of this excruciating fight?” Birand wrote.

“Let us not forget that closure is like a nuclear weapon -- you can use it once.”