ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s top court agreed on Monday to hear a case to shut down the ruling AK Party and bar the prime minister from office, sharply escalating a long and destabilizing dispute over the role of Islam in secular Turkey.
The Constitutional Court’s decision heralds months of uncertainty for the EU candidate country, which is embroiled in a feud between the Islamist-rooted AK Party and a powerful secular elite, including army generals, that accuses AK of plotting to turn Turkey into an Iran-style theocracy.
The AK Party, which has presided over strong economic growth and democratic political reforms since sweeping to power in 2002, denies the charges it has an Islamist agenda and says the lawsuit is an attack on Turkish democracy.
The petition, drawn up by the chief prosecutor of the Court of Appeals, calls for 71 AK Party officials including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul to be banned from politics for five years.
After a lengthy meeting, the Constitutional Court’s 11 judges decided in a rare unanimous ruling to take up the case for closing the AK Party and for barring Erdogan and dozens of other lawmakers from politics for engaging in Islamist activities aimed at weakening the secular state.
European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said he would brief the full European Commission on the case on Wednesday, saying it exposed a “systemic error” in Turkey’s constitution that may require an amendment.
“The prohibition or dissolution of political parties is a far-reaching measure which should be used with the utmost restraint,” Rehn said in a statement. “I do not see any such justification for this case.”
He repeated two previous warnings that in EU member states, the kind of political issues referred by the state prosecutor to the constitutional court were debated in parliament and decided through the ballot box, not in courtrooms.
His announcement that he would inform the full 27-member Commission underlined the seriousness with which the case is seen in Brussels and the possible implications for Turkey’s EU membership bid.
The court’s deputy head, Osman Paksut, said in a short televised statement that seven of the 11 judges voted in favor of considering the call to bar President Gul from politics — enough to bring him too within the scope of the investigation.
Eight of the 11 judges were appointed by Gul’s predecessor, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunchly secularist foe of the AK Party.
The court could throw out the case against the AK Party, but analysts say the unanimous verdict sounds an ominous note.
“The general feeling is that we’re tilting towards closure of the AK Party, meaning a chaotic political and economic outlook,” veteran commentator Mehmet Ali Birand told Reuters.
“I don’t believe Erdogan will give up, he will fight to the end. This is all-out war. It doesn’t look good.”
The court case is likely to drag on for many months.
Turkish business leaders have criticized the lawsuit as harmful to stability. The lira currency and the Istanbul stock market, already battered by political tensions and the global credit crunch, weakened further after the court announcement.
The AK Party, which won 47 percent of the vote in last year’s election, has said it may try to change the constitution to make it more difficult to ban political parties and then seek a referendum on the changes.
“There is a need for a regulation that broadens the political arena by rectifying the system for shutting down parties,” AK deputy leader Nihat Ergun said.
Opposition parties say changing the constitution while a case is pending would be dangerously provocative and possibly illegal and have vowed to resist such a move.
Some Turkish media have described the lawsuit as a “judicial coup” against the AK Party after the secularists failed to block the party’s choice of Gul — like Erdogan a former Islamist — from the presidency last year.
Analysts say the government’s decision to push for an easing of a ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf at university was what prompted the prosecutor’s move.
Secularists see the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam. The AK Party says easing the ban is a matter of religious freedom and it claims strong public support for the move in a country where about two thirds of women cover their heads.
Turkey has banned more than 20 political parties over the years for alleged Islamist or Kurdish separatist activities.
The army, with broad public support, edged out a government deemed too Islamist as recently as 1997, but the AK Party is much more popular. The army has not commented on the lawsuit.
Additional reporting by Paul de Bendern in Istanbul and Paul Taylor in Brussels; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mary Gabriel