Turkish PM condemns bid to shut down his party

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday condemned a bid by state prosecutors to shut down his ruling AK Party as an attack on democracy and political stability and vowed to resist it.

A state prosecutor asked Turkey’s Constitutional Court on Friday to close the AK Party because he said it was trying to destroy secularism and turn the country into an Islamic state.

He also sought to ban Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul and scores of other AK Party officials from politics for five years in a move sure to rattle financial markets and dismay the European Union Ankara hopes to join.

“This case is a step taken against the national will,” Erdogan told a televised AK Party rally in southeast Turkey.

“Nobody can depict the AK Party… as a hotbed of anti-secular activity… Nobody can deflect us from our path. We will continue our democratic march with the same determination.”

Erdogan, a pious Muslim who was once briefly jailed and barred from politics for reading a religious poem in public, strongly denies claims that his party has an Islamist agenda.

The 162-page indictment, drawn up by the chief prosecutor at the Court of Appeals, marks the latest shot in a long-running feud between Turkey’s fiercely secular elite, which includes judges and army generals, and the religiously-minded government.

Political tensions in Turkey have been especially high since parliament — dominated by the AK Party — approved constitutional amendments last month easing a ban on women students wearing the Muslim headscarf at university campuses.

INFLUENCE OF RELIGION

Secularists see the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam and the most visible sign of what they regard as the increasing influence of religion in officially secular Turkey.

Erdogan, whose wife and daughters cover their heads, says the headscarf is an issue of individual freedom.

The AK Party, born of a coalition of Islamists, centre-right politicians and nationalists, has championed market reforms and secured the start of EU accession talks since sweeping to power in 2002. It won a fresh four-year term in last July’s elections.

Erdogan, who has presided over five years of economic recovery and liberal market and social reforms, is by far the most popular politician in Turkey. Parties routed and swept from government in 2002 have so far failed to stage any strong recovery.

EU and U.S. officials expressed concern at the indictment.

“The voters have spoken. Their wishes should be respected,” the pro-government Zaman daily quoted U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza as saying.

“A court case represents an old mentality out of synch with the 21st century. Turkey’s image in Europe has suffered a blow,” said Joost Lagendijk, a Dutch member of the European Parliament.

In their indictment, cited on Saturday by Turkish media, the prosecutors say: “There is an attempt to expunge the secular principles of the constitution … The AK Party envisages a model (of society) which takes its reference from religion.”

The indictment also accuses the government of maintaining ties with previously banned Islamist parties from the 1990s and said AK Party supporters wedded to Islamist ideas were steadily infiltrating state structures.

The Constitutional Court is currently weighing an appeal from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to annul the recent headscarf reform as contrary to secularism.

The courts and the military see themselves as guardians of the country’s strict separation of religion and politics rooted in the foundation of the modern state in the 1920s from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

A string of parties suspected of Islamist ambitions have been banned in the past, before reemerging under another name. As recently as 1997, the military edged from power a party it said threatened the secular order.

The AK, however, has garnered a breadth of support far beyond that enjoyed by parties banned in the past and stressed liberal democratic credentials, appealing to middle classes as well as impoverished workers in the Anatolian heartland.

The secularist CHP opposition said prosecutors were just doing their job in trying to shut the AK Party, but liberal commentators — including those critical of the AK’s recent heavy focus on the headscarf — said banning parties was wrong.

“I find this attempt to close the ruling party totally wrong because it was elected (in last July’s parliamentary polls) with 47 percent of the vote,” said Hasan Cemal in the Milliyet daily.

“Political stability will be harmed. Whenever a party is closed in Turkey, it has blocked the way of Turkish democracy.”

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