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In Turkey, secularists escalate fight against ruling AKP

The country's highest court is weighing whether to allow a motion to shut down the party, saying its Islamic initiatives cross a constitutional line.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent / March 27, 2008

Under scrutiny: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party are facing heightened criticism for straying from the Constitution's secular principles.

Umit Bektas/Reuters

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Istanbul

Turkey's secular establishment has dramatically escalated its fight to thwart the growing influence of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the emerging socially and religiously conservative middle class that it represents.

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After protesting the AKP's presidential candidate, precipitating new elections, and then losing out to the AKP at the polls last year, hard-line secularists are now taking a new tack: trying to shut down the party for "expunging" the Constitution's secular principles.

Turkey's highest court is set to decide in the coming days whether to allow the motion, filed by the country's top prosecutor on March 14, to go forward. If the Constitutional Court decides to allow the case to proceed, it could plunge Turkey into a deep crisis, threatening the country's emerging political and economic stability and further jeopardizing its already troubled bid for European Union membership.

"This would definitely hinder the government in many ways. There are so many things to be done, such as issues relating to the EU, Cyprus, and the economy, and the government would no longer be in a position of authority," says Sahin Alpay, a political science professor at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. "What the people going after the party are doing is really shooting the country in its own feet."

EU officials have criticized the closure move, calling it antidemocratic.

"In a normal European democracy, political issues are debated in parliament and decided in the ballot box, not in the courtroom," said EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn in response to the prosecutor's unexpected call to shut down the AKP. "It is difficult to see that this lawsuit respects the democratic principles of a normal European society."

24 parties closed since 1963

Turkish law gives the judiciary broad powers to shut political parties down. The Constitutional Court has closed 24 parties since it was established in 1963. The court is currently deciding on a motion to close the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), accused of promoting ethnic separatism.

The indictment against the AKP calls for the party to be permanently shut and for 71 of its leaders – including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul – to be banned from politics for five years.

"The AKP is founded by a group that drew lessons from the closure of earlier Islamic parties and uses democracy to reach its goal, which is installing sharia [Islamic law] in Turkey," the indictment says. "There is an attempt to expunge the secular principles of the Constitution."

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