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Court victory gives Turkey's ruling AKP a reprieve

Prime Minister Erdogan's party escaped being banned by only one vote. Now, say analysts, he must work quickly to bridge the divide between religious AKP supporters and secularists.

By Patrick WrigleyContributor / August 1, 2008

Istanbul, Turkey

The surprise announcement by Turkey's top court on Wednesday that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will not be shut down for undermining the country's secular constitution has spread a wave of relief through the corridors of power in Ankara.

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But analysts say Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP must grab the opportunity offered by this reprieve to bridge the widening divide between supporters of Islam and secularism.

"They need to be much smarter after the verdict, and I think Tayyip Erdogan is aware of this basic fact," says Sedat Laciner, director of the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara. "The AK Party will be more moderate, I think, in dealing with the constitution, in dealing with the opposition and in dealing with other sensitive issues."

Only one vote short of banning the ruling party

Mr. Erdogan, who along with 70 other AKP deputies faced the prospect of being banned from politics for five years as part of the charge sheet, reacted to the news by telling the local press, "A great uncertainty blocking Turkey's future has been lifted," adding that he would "continue to protect the fundamental principles of our republic."

Not everyone has put such a positive spin on the verdict. The 11 member panel of the constitutional court fell just one vote short of the seven required to ban the party while a majority also voted to suspend public funding for the party. While most observers concur that the verdict should ease the political and economic instability that has gripped the country since Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya brought the case to the constitutional court in March, some remain cautious.

Many commentators see this as a final warning to the AKP not to alienate the powerful secular elites who still hold prominent positions among the judiciary and the military. "The AKP has been given a yellow card until next time. This is a verdict that will keep the AKP under strict observation," says Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for the conservative daily Today's Zaman. "It will always keep the threat of closure over the party. The debate and struggle for enhanced democracy will continue with the same sensitivities alive."