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.
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."
Among the evidence the 162-page motion cites are numerous speeches of Mr. Erdogan's, as well as descriptions of municipal AKP actions, such as banning alcohol sales, and the party's recent successful parliamentary effort to lift a ban on the wearing of head scarves in universities.
Why AKP's actions rile secularists
Turkey's secularists have long looked at religion as a hindrance to the country's project of modernization and Westernization, initiated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century.
"A lot of the attempts of the government and their public statements are aiming to make Turkey an Islamic country rather than a secular country. There are a lot of indications that we are going from a Western-style country to an Islamic state," says Onur Oymen, deputy chairman of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), which itself had once been shut down.
"We would prefer to compete with our political rivals in elections, but Turkey is a country where the law prevails. All political parties should respect the rules of the Constitution," he adds.
But some criticize the secularists of using the law to suit their political purposes. "This case may be seen as a political attempt by the state [secularist] elites to remove a democratically elected government from power," says Zuhtu Arslan, a constitutional law expert who has advised the government on the drafting of a new constitution.
"I don't think there is strong evidence to support the idea that the AKP party has become a center for activities against secularism," he says. "But this is a political case, not purely a legal one, so you cannot say the party will not be dissolved because the evidence is too weak."
Some even go so far as to call it a "judicial coup" – an alternative to calling in the military after the AKP won 47 percent of the vote in last summer's parliamentary election, despite efforts by its rivals to characterize it as trying to undermine Turkey's secular foundations.
The party was also able to get Mr. Gul, one of its founders, elected president by parliament, despite an effort by the powerful military to derail his candidacy.
"The state and the state bureaucracy, the old elites, are trying to protect their turf. They are losing ground. Even the judiciary, in this case, has become politicized," he says.
Erdogan and other AKP leaders have already promised to introduce constitutional reforms that would limit the judiciary's ability to close parties and that would allow the party to evade closure. Experts, though, believe that any constitutional reforms passed by the AKP would be challenged by its secularist opponents in parliament, setting the stage for continuing legal and political tensions.