Turk ruling party acts to try to avoid closure

ANKARA Mon Mar 24, 2008 11:02am EDT

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan walks past a guard of honour during a ceremony in Ankara March 17, 2008. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan walks past a guard of honour during a ceremony in Ankara March 17, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas

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ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's ruling AK Party is this week expected to present to parliament changes in the law to prevent a possible closure of the party for alleged anti-secular activity, a senior party member said on Monday.

A chief prosecutor asked the Constitutional Court earlier this month to close down the ruling party for allegedly trying to create an Islamic state in secular Turkey.

He also sought to ban 71 party officials, including the prime minister and president, from politics for five years. The AK Party, which has Islamist roots, denies the charges.

"Changing the constitution has become a necessity," AK Party deputy Nihat Ergun, who is a senior member in parliament, told reporters. He said changes to the current constitution were now necessary regardless of whether Turkey's top court rules against the party in a possible trial.

The lawsuit has raised the prospect of prolonged political turmoil, including delays in economic and other reforms sought by the European Union as part of Turkey's membership negotiations.

Turkey's secular elite, which includes the judiciary, army generals and university rectors, believes the AK Party is trying to undermine the separation of state and religion.

The AK Party denies this and says the indictment filed against it is politically motivated.

NERVOUS MARKETS

Turkey's financial markets, already under pressure from global financial woes have been unsettled by the threat of prolonged political uncertainty.

Ergun declined to give details of possible changes, but Turkish media have reported that the constitutional changes may be designed to limit party bans to those parties guilty of inciting violence or racism.

Another proposal would require any party ban to be approved by parliament, where AK Party has a big majority.

The government would need opposition support to push through constitutional changes, but opposition parties have so far suggested they would not support such changes.

Ergun said if the changes did not find sufficient support in parliament another alternative would be to hold a referendum on the issue.

The head of the Court of Appeals, whose chief prosecutor launched the case, has warned the government against taking measures that could undermine the independence of the judiciary.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has reacted angrily to the lawsuit, vowing to fight what he calls an attack on democracy.

The court case is the latest salvo in a decades-old battle between a secular elite, which has traditionally controlled Turkey's key institutions, and religious-oriented political parties, today in the shape of the popular AK Party.

Secularists point to parliament's recent decision to ease a ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf at university as proof of the AK Party's desire to undermine the secular state.

(Writing by Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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