ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s Constitutional Court began deliberating on Monday on whether to close the ruling AK Party on charges of seeking to introduce Islamic rule in the predominantly Muslim but officially secular state.
On Sunday, just hours before the case was to begin, bombs killed 17 people and wounded more than 150 in an Istanbul street of cafes and shops. No one has claimed responsibility for the blasts, the deadliest attacks in Turkey since 2003.
“In a critical period, terror targets civilians,” said a headline in Sabah newspaper.
Turkey’s politicians, the European Union and foreign investors are anxiously awaiting a verdict in the AK Party case, which has drawn Turkey into a period of political uncertainty that has hurt financial markets and slowed reform.
The lira weakened in early trade ahead of the court session, which began at 9:35 a.m. (2:35 a.m. EDT).
Closure of the party would almost certainly lead to an early election, possibly as soon as November, and deal a further blow to Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU.
It has also deepened divisions between the Islamist-rooted government and an elite of military, judicial and academic officials who regard themselves as the custodians of the NATO member’s secular system.
“With 47 percent of the vote the (AK Party) government cannot be easily closed down. Turkey will not be able to explain this to the outside world,” said Huseyin Bagci, a politics professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University.
“The government is also realizing that they made some strategic mistakes, so now the question is how to retreat from this situation to a normal democratic life,” he said.
The court agreed in March to take up the case seeking to close the party and ban Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul and 69 senior AK Party officials from membership of a political party for five years. The party rejects the charges.
Analysts, who expect a verdict by early August, still think closure is the most likely scenario, despite growing speculation the party could escape a ban. Turkey’s battered stock market has rebounded this month on the prospect it will avoid closure.
The court could dismiss the case, impose a fine, or ban the party and some of its leaders. In order to close the party, seven of the 11 judges must vote in favor of such a move.
Erdogan, in an interview with Hurriyet newspaper published on Sunday, rejected suggestions that he would adopt a more dictatorial style if the AK Party survives closure.
“God willing there will be a beneficial verdict for our country. What I can say is that it is impossible for me to ever behave with hate or enmity towards my people,” Erdogan said.
He acknowledged for the first time in the interview that the party had made mistakes which contributed to the current crisis.
Divisions grew in January when the government moved to lift a ban on university students wearing Islamic headscarves. The Constitutional Court annulled that reform in June.
Apart from the headscarf issue, secularists accuse the AK Party of stacking the state bureaucracy with its allies.
The closure case is the latest salvo in a decades-old battle between a secularist elite, which has traditionally controlled Turkey’s key institutions, and religious-oriented political parties, today in the shape of the pro-business AK Party.
If the court bans the party, the government will dissolve and the remaining AK Party deputies will become independent MPs, allowed to form a new party or join an existing one.
Commentators say the most likely scenario would then be an early parliamentary election.
Shutting such a popular party, which won almost half the vote in a parliamentary election a year ago, would be politically difficult and harm Turkey’s EU accession process.
Erdogan would likely seek to regain the office of prime minister as an independent candidate in an election -- a potential source of fresh tension between the two camps.
(Additional reporting by Paul de Bendern)
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Catherine Evans
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