ANKARA Turkey's ruling AK party appeared to move a step closer to being shut down on Thursday when the Constitutional Court overturned a reform that would have allowed women to wear Islamic headscarves in universities.
The headscarf amendment plays a central role in a separate, crucial case that seeks to outlaw the AK Party for anti-secular activities, and ban 71 members, including the prime minister and president, from belonging to a political party for five years.
"This guarantees the closure of the party. I don't think we can talk of any calm before full chaos," said Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.
The court said in a statement it upheld, by 9 votes to 2, an appeal from the main opposition CHP party, seeking to block a legal amendment allowing students to wear the garment on campus.
More conservative secularists saw the amendment as a violation of strict separation between Mosque and state, and evidence the AK Party has a secret agenda to introduce a system of Islamic law. AK denies such ambitions and has introduced many social reforms aimed at European Union membership.
"With this decision the Constitutional Court has exceeded its authority. I see this decision as contrary to the constitution," said AK Party deputy group chairman Bekir Bozdag.
The AK Party has roots in political Islam and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan served a prison sentence for Islamist activity in the 1990s. But it was formed, six years ago, as a broad coalition of religious conservatives, nationalists, market liberals and centre-right activists.
The Turkish lira fell 1 percent against the dollar on the news, with markets fearing prolonged political uncertainty in the EU-applicant country and a slow-down of economic and political reforms.
The Constitutional Court, the highest judicial body, said lifting the headscarf ban was contrary to three articles in the constitution, including article two that specifies that Turkey is a secular republic. Turkey is also 99 percent Muslim.
The AK Party says the right to wear the headscarf at university is a personal and religious freedom. Secularists see it as a symbol of political Islam.
"If Turkey is a secular, democratic state, we must all respect the (court's) decisions. The ruling states the obvious," military chief General Yasar Buyukanit told reporters.
A powerful elite of military, judicial and academic officials regard themselves as the custodians of secularism and the army, with public support, edged a party from power as recently as 1997 on accusations of Islamist activity.
In AK, however, the secularist elite faces a party with a large parliamentary majority and a highly popular leader.
Senior AK Party members told Reuters recently the party has started to believe it would be closed down and Erdogan banned from belonging to a political party for five years.
The closure case is expected to take months to conclude.
Secularists, who until recently controlled key state institutions, are now accused by some of using the judiciary to hit back at an increasingly prosperous and assertive religious middle class that forms the bedrock of support for the AK Party.
"These guys are playing their last card and they won't take any chances. They can't do a coup d'etat any more like in 1960, 1971 or 1980," Aktar said.
If AK is outlawed its members in parliament are expected to form a new political party and form the next government, analysts said, but added they may face serious legal hurdles.
More than 80 years after revolutionary secularists led by Mustafal Kemal Ataturk abolished the Ottoman Islamic Caliphate, the divisive potential of Islam in Turkey remains high.
"We fear this ruling will accelerate the process of dividing and polarizing Turkish society on the basis of belief," said Devlet Bahceli, leader of the MHP, which supported the AK Party in pushing the headscarf-related amendments through parliament.
(Additional reporting by Selcuk Gokoluk in Ankara, Daren Butler, Thomas Grove, and Zerin Elci in Istanbul; Writing by Paul de Bendern)