Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 61

On March 31, Turkey’s Constitutional Court agreed to hear the case filed by Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya for the closure of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In the indictment filed with the court on March 14, Yalcinkaya had asked for the AKP to be outlawed on the grounds that it had become a center of anti-secular activity. He also called for seventy-one members of the AKP to be banned from political activity. Thirty-eight of them are currently Members of Parliament. The list included Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, who served as AKP Foreign Minister from 2003 to 2007 (see EDM, March 17).

In announcing its decision to accept the case, the court issued a brief statement declaring that the application had been accepted unanimously, with the exception of the charges against Gul, for which seven of its members had voted for and four against. Under Turkish law, party closures require a two thirds majority (seven of the eleven members) of the court.

The AKP will now have thirty days in which to submit its initial defense, although it can seek a short extension. Yalcinkaya will then be asked to present the case for the prosecution. The entire process is expected to last at least eight months and possibly up to a year, with a final verdict not expected until December 2008 or early 2009.

The court’s decision had been widely expected (see EDM, March 21 and 28). Indeed, Articles 68 and 69 of the Turkish Constitution give the Public Prosecutor the right to file cases to close political parties, so it would have been very difficult for the court to reject Yalcinkaya’s application. Nevertheless, before the announcement of the court’s decision, there had been rumors that it might reject the application if the AKP would back down on its attempts to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities (see EDM, February 11 and 25), which Yalcinkaya said was his main reason for filing the case (Referans, March 29-30).

Most of the leading figures in the AKP, including Erdogan, are former members of three Islamist parties that were closed down by the Constitutional Court. Yet, since it came to power in November 2002, the AKP has not attempted to amend the constitution to make closures of political parties impossible. On November 16, 2007, Yalcinkaya filed an application to the close pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). The AKP expressed its opposition to the application but did nothing (see EDM, November 19, 2007), instead focusing on trying to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities, which prevents many pious Sunni women from receiving a higher education. The AKP argued, not without justification, that the headscarf ban was a violation of the women’s rights; but it made no attempt to lift other restrictions, such as those on the expression of a Kurdish identity, which makes it an imprisonable offence to denigrate Turkishness, or the discrimination suffered by Turkey’s large heterodox Alevi minority. The AKP thereby alienated many liberals in the country by giving the impression that it was only interested in the rights of its own Sunni Muslim supporters.

After Yalcinkaya filed his application for the AKP’s closure, party members began talking about amending the constitution to make it impossible to ban political parties. The AKP’s failure to introduce such amendments when the Constitutional Court decided to begin hearing the case against the DTP, however, makes it very difficult for the AKP to argue that it is motivated by anything but self-interest.

Nor does the electoral process appear to offer a way out. In May 2007, when the Turkish military intervened to try to block the AKP’s attempts to appoint Gul to the presidency, the government was able to call early elections five months ahead of schedule and secure a fresh mandate; but doing so again, less than a year after its landslide victory in July 2007, would be unlikely to provide a solution, not least because the AKP would have to decide whether to run under its own name–and thus risk being dissolved if the Constitutional Court decides in Yalcinkaya’s favor–or go through the time-consuming process of establishing an entirely new party. Yet, if found guilty, Erdogan and the other leading AKP members named in Yalcinkaya’s indictment face being banned for five years from membership in any political party (see EDM, March 21).

Even if the Constitutional Court eventually dismisses the case against the AKP, healing the wounds inflicted by the events of the last few months is likely to take years. While the AKP claims to form a minority of the population, they are a large minority. Turkish society is now deeply divided between supporters and opponents of the AKP, both of whom apparently believe that their trial of strength can only end when the other is completely vanquished. Unless the two sides display an as yet undemonstrated desire for compromise, victory for either will have a devastating impact on the social fabric of the country (Hurriyet, Dunya, Referans, Milliyet, Yeni Safak, Zaman, Aksam, Sabah, April 1).