Turkey's Constitutional Court is deliberating whether or not to outlaw the pro-Islamic Virtue Party, the third largest political group in parliament. The court's ruling is not expected before next week, but the case has already sparked passionate debate among political leaders, intellectuals, and journalists. Many fear that a ban on the Virtue Party would open the door to political instability and further economic troubles in Turkey. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports:
Prague, 13 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's Constitutional Court convened yesterday to begin final deliberations on whether to ban the Islamist Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi). As it did, fear that the court's verdict might spark political instability jolted Turkish markets, sending the Istanbul stock index down almost 2 percent.
The 11-member panel of judges is expected to continue its closed-door discussions for several days. Talking to reporters just before the proceedings began, Constitutional Court chief Mustafa Bumin said the judges might not rule before early next week.
The country's third biggest party, Virtue has 102 deputies in the 550-seat Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament). It faces two charges before the Constitutional Court: first, that it seeks to overthrow the country's secular government and establish Koranic Shariah law, and second, that it is simply a continuation under another name of former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan's banned Welfare Party. Turkish law prohibits the restitution of banned parties under different names.
If it rules against the Virtue Party, the Constitutional Court has at least two options. It can decide either to outlaw the party as a whole or -- as Prosecutor-General Sabih Kanadoglu has suggested -- remove only two of its most outspoken parliamentarians from office.
The Welfare Party was barred by the Constitutional Court in January 1998, shortly after Erbakan, Turkey's first pro-Islamic prime minister, was forced from power by the country's mighty military establishment. Earlier this year, Erbakan filed a complaint against the decision to outlaw his party with the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights. The rights court is still considering its verdict.
The case against the Virtue Party was initiated two years ago (May 1999) by Turkey's former chief prosecutor, Vural Savas, after the party had sought -- and failed -- to have one of its woman deputies take the oath in parliament wearing a headscarf. Virtue has also been accused of inciting recent protests in universities against a headscarf ban.
Wearing headscarves has been illegal in Turkey since the mid-1930s, when the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, banned them. Ataturk considered headscarves as a symbol of a "political Islam" that was trying to keep the country's leadership from implementing Western reforms.
Former Prosecutor-General Savas, who retired earlier this year, was responsible for the banning of Erbakan's Welfare Party three years ago. In his case against Virtue, he sought the closure of the party, a five-year political ban on its leaders, and the removal from office of all its 102 representatives in parliament. He likened Virtue to a "vampire" roaming the land and preying on the public's religious feelings and ignorance.
Virtue Party leader Recai Kutan has repeatedly denied the charges brought against his party. He has also dismissed accusations that it has anything in common with such radical Turkish Islamic movements as the outlawed Hizbullah -- unrelated to the Lebanon-based group of the same name -- or the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front.
Speaking to reporters on 11 June, Kutan said he was confident that his party will survive the verdict of the Constitutional Court. The "Hurriyet" mass-circulation daily quoted him as saying, "We expect this lawsuit to end in a very quiet and peaceful way."
Kutan says Virtue enjoys the support of 30 to 40 percent of Turkish voters. But while the party's core membership remains deeply religious, it now appears to be a fading political force. It won only 15 percent of the vote in the 1999 parliamentary elections, almost 7 percent less than the vote garnered by Erbakan's Welfare Party four years earlier. Today, according to public opinion polls, Virtue's popular backing is well below the 10 percent needed to be represented in parliament.
To add to its troubles, Virtue is reportedly on the verge of a split between Kutan's conservative old guard and young reformists led by former Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who are seeking to modernize the party.
In comments published late last year (18 December) in the English-language "Turkish Daily News," Virtue moderate leader Abdullah Gul urged reconciliation between Turkey's Islamic tradition and Western democratic values. He also accused Erbakan -- whom he described as Virtue's "spiritual leader" -- of trying to purge the party of its more reform-minded members.
Remy Leveau is a regional analyst at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). In a interview with RFE/RL, Leveau said he does not believe Islamic movements represent a threat to Turkey's secularism. Much more worrying, he believes, is the growing influence of Turkey's military establishment, which regards itself as secularism's guardian and seeks a greater say in domestic affairs.
"One wonders whether [the military leadership] is not simply trying to provoke elements that currently exist within the [Islamic] movement into responding to pressure. That would make it possible for the authorities to take a tougher political stance, adopt emergency measures and, by claiming that the Islamic movements are violating human rights and republican principles, place the whole society under an authoritarian regime. I think that this -- rather than the Islamic movements, which are losing ground -- is what is really at stake."
Turkey's military high command, which is pressing for a law that would purge all suspected Islamic-movement sympathizers from government service, would certainly welcome a ban on the Virtue Party. Earlier this year (17 January), the chief of the army's General Staff, General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, said the fight against what he called the "fundamentalist Islamic threat [would continue] for 1,000 years, if needed."
The army argues that any easing of the campaign against political Islam could move the country away from Ataturk's goal of a pro-Western Turkey and turn it into an Iran-like theocracy.
Whatever the outcome of the Constitutional Court's deliberations, the debate over the issue is regarded as crucial to Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's battered coalition government. The government is struggling both to pull the country out of an eight-month economic crisis and to implement political reforms that will promote Turkey's candidacy for European Union membership. Ecevit has pledged to pass quickly reform legislation needed to secure some $16 billion in loans from international institutions.
Ecevit, who heads the Democratic Left Party, has said he does not favor banning the Virtue Party. He argues that banning parties in Turkey has never had a deterrent effect and suggests that what he calls "more democratic means" should be used in combating Islamic political movements.
Analysts say that banning the Virtue Party would stir up popular controversy in Turkey. They also believe a ban could affect Turkey's relations with the EU. Sami Kohen, a columnist with the Turkish "Milliyet" daily, told RFE/RL:
"If such a verdict is pronounced, Turkey may find itself in a very difficult position vis-a-vis its European allies at a time when efforts are being deployed to join the EU. This will not be viewed with sympathy by the West in general. Not everybody sympathizes with the Islamists, of course, but the Virtue Party is a legal party."
Turkey stands last among 13 current EU candidates. Although Ankara formally applied for membership in 1987, accession talks have not yet begun.
Earlier this year (19 March), Ecevit's cabinet approved a national program of political, economic, and legal reforms which it said should pave the way for Turkey's entry into the 15-nation bloc. But the EU expressed reservations about his program, notably regarding human rights issues.
Other political parties have reportedly already started talks to lure away Islamist deputies in the event Virtue is closed down. As journalist Kohen explains, a court decision to ban the party would leave its legislators without political affiliation:
"This is the key question: What will these 100 or so MPs do? Will they join another party? There is already an effort -- for instance, by the MHP nationalist party -- to attract [them]. In case some Islamist MPs join the MHP, which is the closest party to them -- then the MHP, [one of the three parties in Ecevit's coalition,] will emerge as the first party [in parliament] and, therefore, may be qualified to ask to form a new government. Practically, this means that MHP leader Devlet Bahceli could claim the right to be prime minister instead of Bulent Ecevit."
The MHP currently holds 127 seats in parliament, eight fewer than Ecevit's Democratic Left. If the Constitutional Court chooses to remove at least 20 of Virtue's deputies, this would bring the total number of vacant seats in parliament -- now eight -- to the five percent threshold that triggers by-elections. If the court decides to outlaw the party and to ban its members from any kind of political activity, early general elections will have to be called.
In any case, analysts agree that a total ban of Virtue would be ineffective, since the party would likely continue under another name. Asked a few months ago (14 March) whether a court decision to outlaw his party would affect Turkey's political landscape, Virtue leader Kutan said: "If we go, others will replace us."
What's more, a ban would probably prompt Erdogan and other Virtue Party moderate leaders to set up a new party of their own -- as they have often suggested in the past. Journalist Kohen comments, "We may well end up with two Islamic parties instead of one."