Top Turkish court votes not to close AKP

By bne IntelliNews July 31, 2008

Nicholas Birch in Istanbul -

Turkey's highest court pulled the country back from the brink on Thursday, July 30 when it narrowly rejected calls for the country's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to be closed for alleged anti-secularist activities.

Six judges voted in favour of banning the party, four voted for financial penalties and one rejected the case, the Constitutional Court chief Hasim Kilic said. Seven judges would have had to vote in favour of the ban for it to pass. Instead of that nuclear option, the court contented itself with a sharp slap on the wrist for the AKP, with all but one judge voting to remove half the party's state funding.

"There's only one word to describe my reaction to the decision," said Koksal Toptan, AKP's speaker in parliament. "'Phew.'"

The closure case was sparked by the AKP's clumsy efforts to end a ban on headscarves in universities in February. Since a senior prosecutor brought the indictment mid-March, politics here has been paralysed, blocking the country's struggling EU bid and pushing decades-long tensions between pious and secular-minded Turks to boiling point.

Back from the brink

The court decision came as something of a surprise. Packed with judges appointed by a fiercely secularist former president, the court has sparked major debate twice over the past year with controversial decisions against the government.

For a fortnight, though, following reports by Lehman Brothers and JPMorgan, speculation had been rising both internationally and domestically that it would pull back from a decision to close the party.

Heavily hit by world recession and domestic instability, Istanbul's stock exchange rose 5.7% during the day in the lead-up to the announcement amid hopes the AKP would escape the cut. The market is up 30% since the beginning of July. The political chaos has also severely beaten up Turkey's rapidly growing but still fragile economy. Worth $20bn last year, foreign direct investment so far this year has slumped to $6bn, a meagre sum in a country which has a current account deficit of $40bn. Reactions from Europe, where senior politicians had warned of a possible suspension of Turkey's accession process, were equally upbeat.

Yet the AKP can in no way be said to have got off scot free. In essence, the votes of 10 out of 11 judges were an expression of concern for the way the AKP has behaved since it won 47% of votes at elections last year. "The AKP has a lot of lessons to learn from the ruling," says Atilla Kart, a senior member of the staunchly secularist chief opposition party. "I hope [senior party members] remember the content of the speeches that were made after last year's electoral victory," he added, referring to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's promise to be a party for all Turks.

The headscarf debacle was not the only mistake the AKP has made. Many centrist voters who backed the party for its sound economic management have been disgusted by Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian rhetoric.

Everything now depends on how the AKP reacts. PM Tayyip Erdogan recently admitted his party had made mistakes, and many deputies in what is a broad church of a party privately admit they are concerned with the path their leader has taken.

Yet the first signs are that the AKP has preferred to ignore the warning implicit in the court's ruling. A senior AKP member, Edibe Sozen, says that there will be no change of direction in AKP's policy. In a speech late in the evening after the court's ruling, Tayyip Erdogan struck a similarly defiant note, quoting the party's electoral slogan: "no stopping, full steam ahead." True, he talked of the importance of "social peace" and of the need for politicians of all stripes to act "responsibly." But his statement that the AKP "has never been a centre for anti-secular activities" implied either that he misunderstood the court's message or is choosing to ignore it.

For Bulent Aliriza, Turkish expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the speech made a mockery of widespread talk about how the court's decision spelt the end of Turkey's political chaos. "How did Churchill put it, 'this is the end of the beginning'," he says.

While it's less powerful than in the past, he says, Turkey's secularist establishment, headed by the military, shows few signs of accepting the model of "democratic secularism" that the AKP proposed in its defence to the Constitutional Court. "The key word here is transformation," Aliriza says. "Turkey's old political model has been shown to be out of date. But there is still no consensus on what might replace it."

"In the long term, Turkey is in for more trouble," he predicts.

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