Turkey's top court narrowly voted against disbanding the ruling party over accusations it is plotting to impose Islamic rule, but the judges cut off millions of dollars in state aid to a party locked in a power struggle with the secular elite.
The decision on Wednesday averted political chaos, at least in the short term, for a country seeking to join the EU. But the case exposed the vulnerabilities of Western-style democracy in Turkey, where the fate of an Islamic-oriented governing party with strong electoral backing lay in the hands of a panel of 11 judges.
The Constitutional Court delivered a strong — though unspecified — warning to the ruling Justice and Development Party in its decision to deprive it of half of its state funding. The party will lose about US$15 million this year.
“It is a serious warning,” court chairman Hasim Kilic said. “I hope that this outcome will be assessed and that the necessary measures will be taken.”
Kilic said six of the 11 judges wanted to dissolve the party of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one less than the seven votes needed to impose a ban.
“The fact that there wasn’t unanimity among the judges reflects the divisions that we have in society concerning the party,” said Omer Faruk Genckaya, an analyst at Bilkent University in Ankara, the capital.
The decision represented a reprieve for Erdogan and his allies in an overwhelmingly Muslim country with a secular system. A ban on the party would have triggered a sharp escalation in political turmoil in the NATO member, where a bomb attack on Sunday killed 17 people in Istanbul.
A ban would have severely damaged Turkey’s image as a democracy because the ruling party won a landslide victory in elections last year. EU leaders had said the ruling party’s viability should be decided in elections, not courtrooms.
“The great uncertainty that was blocking Turkey’s path has been lifted with this decision,” Erdogan said after the verdict. “Our party, which was never the focal point of anti-secular activity, will continue from now on to defend the republic’s basic values.”
European leaders voiced relief at the ruling and urged Turkey to press ahead with EU-backed reforms that have languished, partly because of the political infighting and partly from Turkish skepticism about the need for changes.
“It needs a new civil and democratic constitution as soon as possible. The articles of the Turkish constitution that allow closing down political parties should be changed immediately,” said Joost Lagendijk, chairman of the Turkey-EU delegation in the European Parliament.
Lagendijk urged the ruling party to show more “sensitivity” to concerns of its Turkish critics as well as “clear signs” that it is committed to the secular ideals of the state.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack reacted to the court’s decision by saying the US would continue to work with the government and encouraging it to “reinvigorate its efforts with the EU.”
The court case was the latest battleground between the pious Muslims who run the government, but embrace aspects of Western political and economic systems, and the secular establishment that draws support from the military and judiciary.
The rift has evolved over the last century since national founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk jettisoned Islam as a guiding force in society and politics and imposed a secular system.