Turkey to consider ban on ruling Islamic party

Turkey's top court voted Monday to hear a case that argues that Turkey's Islamic-rooted ruling party should be banned.

The unanimous decision could lead to months of political uncertainty in a nation divided over the role of Islam in society. The 11-member Constitutional Court agreed to hear the case for dissolving Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party on grounds that it is threatening Turkey's secular principles, deputy court chairman Osman Paksut said. The case highlights the power struggle between Turkey's secular establishment, including the judiciary and powerful military, and Erdogan and his allies - pious Muslims who advocate political and economic reforms as part of Turkey's bid to be a member of the European Union. Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek, who also serves as the government spokesman, told a news conference that the governing party will "use its democratic right and defend itself." Cicek, however, downplayed the importance of the legal challenge and said: "We are focusing on economic issues and reforms to progress the country's membership bid to join the European Union." Erdogan's Justice and Development Party will seek the support of opposition parties to amend the constitution to make it more difficult for the party to be closed, senior lawmaker Nihat Ergun said. "It is now inevitable to make changes on articles related to political parties," Ergun said. The party has 340 seats in the 550-member parliament. Constitutional amendments require at least 367 votes. However, if the proposed amendment receives at least 330 votes, the president could call for a referendum on the changes. Hikmet Sami Turk, a former justice minister, said the government should not use its power to influence this case. "If they amend the constitution that should only be valid for cases after this one; otherwise the ruling party will be passing an amnesty for itself," Turk said. "Today's court decision was not a detailed evaluation about the content of the case. The court only decided that the case was admissible," said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Bilgi University. "However, the legal process will disturb the governing party." Turan noted that although closing down parties are not really compatible with democracy, "it was a pretty common practice," in Turkey. "The ruling party had no reaction when the chief prosecutor sought to disband a pro-Kurdish party," Turan said, referring to a case against the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party on charges of ties to Kurdish rebels. By law, the governing party has one month to prepare its initial defense. The party can ask for an extension, which would be subject to approval by the court. If it is shut down, its members could regroup under the banner of a new party to lead the government. However, a ban on the party could slow or derail government policies, including reforms linked to Turkey's bid to join the EU. The top court previously closed two political parties deemed to be anti-secular in 1998 and 2001. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said he was concerned about efforts to ban the governing party and suggested the issue could have ramifications for Turkey's EU membership bid.