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.

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.

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."

Such sensitivities include the debate over whether head scarves should be allowed in universities, the AKP's handling of which was a significant catalyst for the closure case. The terrorist attack in Istanbul earlier this week, which has been linked to the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), has also brought issues of Kurdish rights to the fore again. Such problems, along with the Ergenekon investigation into an alleged coup plot by an ultranationalist gang comprised of prominent politicians, lawyers, generals, and journalists, have polarized opinion in Turkey.

Bridging the divide between AKP and secularists

The first challenge for the AKP may be to reform the constitution, which many believe has led to divisions between observant Muslims who support the AKP and secular opponents.

The AKP is also expected to continue their fight against the Ergenekon group, a murky cabal of retired generals, opposition politicians, and secular journalists charged with fomenting violence in preparation for a military coup in 2009.

Laciner cautions against taking this threat lightly. "Maybe they [AKP] will think that they should put an end to this process so as not to cause problems with the army. Maybe they will be happy with the constitutional court decision and think that after a year or two they can deal with the issue. If they behave like this, it means that they do not understand the seriousness of the deep state problem in Turkey."

The secular opposition, led by the Republican People's Party (CHP) may not be in the mood for compromise and cooperation. Mr. Baydar, the columnist, says the opposition will "continue calls for consensus in the sense of very radical concessions from the AKP side and not touch hot potatoes such as the Kurdish issue and the head scarf issue."

But some analysts say that a centrist coalition has to emerge in Turkey, and this verdict has forced that conclusion, while allowing time to develop such a coalition properly.

"The case, and the crisis more broadly, appears to have accomplished the much-needed task of awakening Turkey's centrist forces, which had been ejected from the mainstream in 2002," says Svante Cornell, research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at John Hopkins University in Washington.

"The rebirth of the center and in particular the center-right, which is the political movement conforming with the values and views of most Turks, is a key for Turkey's stabilization," he adds. "A good thing to come out of this decision is that it won't be done in a haste, which it would have had the AKP been closed down."

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