Turkey's dangerous message to the Muslim world
A court ban on the most pro-Western party would be a big mistake.
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It might make sense then, that the Bush administration would do what it could to support a party that has made such a transformation in Turkey. But it's not.
Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP), which fashioned itself as the Muslim equivalent of Europe's Christian Democrats, has stood out by passing a series of unprecedented political reforms as the country's ruling party.
Yet the Turkish Constitutional Court – bastion of the hard-line secularist old guard – is now threatening to close down the AKP and ban its leading figures, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, from party politics for five years. And the Bush administration, in the face of this impending judicial coup, has chosen to remain indifferent. The consequences could reach beyond a setback to democracy in Turkey and affect the Middle East.
The Constitutional Court will rule as soon as next week on an indictment accusing the AKP of being a "focal point of antisecular activities."
Turkey's Constitution establishes secularism as an unalterable principle and allows the court to ban parties it deems antisecular. But disbanding a democratically-elected party on such dubious grounds as attempting to lift a controversial ban on wearing head scarves in universities – the crux of the case against the AKP – is not how mature democracies handle divisive issues. Judges should not decide parties' fates; voters should.
Indeed, voters have flocked to the AKP since its founding by break away reformists within the Islamic movement. The party was elected in 2002 on pledges to preserve secularism and vigorously pursue Turkey's efforts to join the European Union. It also explicitly disavowed the Islamist label.
The AKP-led government then passed a series of democratic reforms that led Brussels to begin formal accession negotiations with Turkey. Those reforms, together with a booming economy, spurred 47 percent of Turks to vote for the AKP in its landslide 2007 reelection.
To be sure, the AKP's democratic credentials are hardly perfect. It has been overly cautious in repealing certain restrictions on freedom of speech, and it abruptly lifted the head scarf ban without first initiating a national dialogue.
Yet despite its flaws, the AKP is the most democratically inclined – and somewhat ironically, the most pro-Western – political party on the Turkish scene today. Closing it down would be a mistake.