Start of the last round for a secular Turkey?

Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan faces a legal challenge that may mean the end of
Turkey's "Kemalist doctrine". The Turkish attorney general wants to ban Erdogan's party.

by Paul Kieffer
March 18, 2008

Recep Erdogan and his wife
 Turkish leader Recept Erdogan with his wife.
 Mrs. Erdogan is wearing a Muslim head scarf.

The legal arm of the Turkish state has decided to take on the Islamic fundamentalist "Justice and Development Party" (AKP) of Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan. On Friday Turkish attorney general Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya placed a request to ban the AKP before the Turkish constitutional court, a measure which would remove Erdogan from office. Yalcinkaya charges that the AKP has become a focal point for activities directed against Turkey's secular state, reflecting the "Kemalist doctrine" of strict separation of church and state, a pillar of the modern Turkish Republic. Yalcinkaya also wants to prohibit Erdogan, Turkish state president Abdullah Gül and 69 other AKP leaders from any further political activity for at least five years, regardless of what party they might be affiliated with.

According to media reports, Turkey's top state lawyer presented 162 pages of evidence and video material to the constitutional court. Among the examples cited are 61 individual charges against Erdogan, including a 2006 quote in which Erdogan claims never to have changed his views. In the 1990s Erdogan voiced support for using the Islamic sharia code of law and said that democracy was only a means to an end. In a 2004 election campaign a local AKP candidate based his campaign on the pledge that the AKP would put an end to Turkey's 80 year misfortune (the Turkish Republic with its Kemalist doctrine).

Erdogan and other AKP leaders reacted to Yalcinkayas legal move with language that amounts to a political "declaration of war" on the Kemalist camp. Erdogan even quoted from the Koran: "They have ears, but do not hear; they have eyes, but do not see" – from a passage about spirits created for hell. Erdogan add that those responsible for requesting the ban on his party will bear the consequences for their actions. One of his political allies even appeared to issue a threat: "Death is the greatest truth. The attorney general has to know that."

Erdogan believes that the attempt to ban his party will backfire: "This will only make us stronger." Three mass demonstrations organized since Friday gave the Turkish prime minister an opportunity to take his case to the people. His party won 47 percent of the popular vote in the last national election and controls the Turkish parliament. In fact, Erdogan has already announced his intention to initiate a change in Turkey's constitution that would require the constitutional court to make a unanimous decision in his case. A majority of the court's judges are Kemalists, but requiring a unanimous decision would mean that the request for a ban would fail to gain court approval. Erdogan's party already changed the constitution earlier this year to allow Muslim students to wear a traditional head scarf during university attendance. That move prompted the attorney general to seek legal action against the AKP.

If the constitutional court decides to initiate proceedings against the AKP and its leaders, the result will be months of legal wrangling that will effectively paralyze the Turkish government. Negotiations on Turkish membership in the European Union will also be delayed.

On the other hand, if the judges reject the attorney general's request, Erdogan will be proven right. His party will be strengthened, and the Kemalists will have lost a major battle in their effort to preserve Turkey as a non-religious state with a predominantly Muslim population. The AKP has already shown that it will make use of its dominant position to change the Turkish constitution to its liking. In fact, a legal defeat may mean that it will be nearly impossible to stop any movement toward greater Islamic influence in Turkish society – unless the Turkish military intervenes.

A decision was expected today. However, in a move seen as a concession to popular opinion, Turkey's constitutional court announced that it would need the full ten days allowed by law to examine the evidence present by attorney general Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya before announcing its decision.

• Paul Kieffer, March 17, 2008