Turkey's Rulers Survive Secularist Challenge

July 31, 2008

Author: Ernesto Londoño

Source: The Washington Post


Turkey's highest court decided Wednesday not to outlaw the nation's Islamic-rooted ruling party, handing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a narrow victory and frustrating Turks intent on protecting the secular character of the government.

Addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party, Erdogan hailed the court's decision. "Democracy wins," he said to vigorous applause. "Political and economic stability win."

The court, however, halved state funding of the party for one year, and its chief jurist said most members found credible evidence that party leaders had undermined secularism.

Court chairman Hasim Kilic said the ruling party should interpret the outcome as a "serious warning" and "take the necessary lessons from this."

The case threatened to unseat Erdogan, along with scores of lawmakers from his party. Justice and Development won 47 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections last year, in part because of the country's economic growth and because of the party's determination to win Turkish membership in the European Union.

Six of the court's 11 judges voted to outlaw the party, falling one vote short of the seven needed in this case. Four other judges agreed with the prosecutor's contention that the party had undermined Turkey's constitutionally mandated secularism but decided that cutting its funding was an adequate sanction. Kilic favored neither option.

Party supporters labeled the case an attempted "judicial coup" and accused secular leaders of resorting to judicial maneuvers to attempt to seize political power they were unable to attain at the ballot box.

Turkish political parties have been banned by the judiciary in the past, but this case marked the first time a popular ruling party faced such a prospect. The decision averted an abrupt change of guard at a time when Turkey is grappling with domestic terrorism and seeking to bolster its case for inclusion in the E.U.

But the underlying political tension that led to the standoff remains. The country's ruling party, whose leaders are observant Muslims, and the secular establishment, which includes opposition parties, the military and the judiciary, are beset by deep mutual bitterness and suspicion.

They are at odds over a question that has divided Turks for years: What role, if any, should Islam play in the affairs of a predominantly Muslim democratic state whose constitution regards secularism as sacred?