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Turkey: Court's Ruling Unlikely To End 'Political Islam'

Turkey's Constitutional Court last week outlawed the moderate Islamic Virtue Party, the third-largest group in parliament. But far from putting an end to what Turkey's secular rulers usually describe as "political Islam," the court's ruling could result in the founding of new religion-oriented parties. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch says it may also help the far-right Nationalist Action Party, a senior partner in Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's ruling coalition. Here is his report.

Prague, 27 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled last week to outlaw the moderate Islamic Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi) for anti-secular activities. But the court chose not to expel all of Virtue's representatives in parliament, thereby avoiding an immediate political crisis that might have destabilized the country.

Still, the court's decision is likely to have long-term political consequences for secular Turkey.

On Friday, 22 June, Turkey's highest court voted eight to three to ban Virtue, Turkey's main opposition party, and to strip two of its deputies of their mandates. In addition, five party members -- including the two expelled deputies -- were barred from political life for five years.

The court found that Virtue -- the third-largest party in parliament, with 102 deputies in the 550-seat Grand National Assembly -- represented a threat to Turkey's secularism, and ordered the confiscation of all its assets.

The Constitutional Court has a long tradition of banning political groups regarded as subversive by the country's powerful military. It has now barred four Islamic parties from political life in the past 40 years.

Surprisingly, the court rejected an additional charge that Virtue, which was created four years ago, was a continuation of former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan's banned Welfare Party (Refah Partisi). In 1998, Welfare was outlawed and Erbakan was banned from political life for five years.

Sixty-nine of Virtue's deputies were former members of Welfare -- a fact cited by prosecutors who argued that the party was in fact Welfare under another name. Prosecutors also accused Erbakan of running Virtue from the outside.

Turkish markets reacted calmly to the court's decision when they reopened after the weekend. Some economic analysts even described the verdict as a "market-friendly result."

A decision to expel 20 or more Virtue deputies from parliament would have triggered by-elections at a time when Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's tripartite coalition government is trying to pass much-awaited reforms before the parliament's summer recess, which begins on Sunday, 1 July.

The reforms are crucial in securing a $16 billion foreign aid package, backed by the International Monetary Fund as a means of extricating the country from its eight-month-long economic crisis.

Many analysts believe that the ban on Virtue is unlikely to weaken the country's Islamic movement in the long term. On the contrary, they say, a new, revamped "political Islam" is likely to emerge out of Virtue's ruins.

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Turkey's "Star" daily newspaper. In an interview with RFE/RL, Idiz agreed that the court's ruling avoided immediate political turmoil by eliminating the prospect of early elections. But he said Turkey could nevertheless face serious political consequences later.

"At the moment, there is a big race to see who will fill in the gap left by Virtue. There is an effort by the party's 'bigwigs' to ensure that they do not split and form [another] party. But, in the meantime, they have produced some mavericks who want to set up their own party. So what the consequences will be is that we will have either one or two new parties that will [take] Virtue's place."

Addressing a crowd of 15,000 supporters in Istanbul five days ago (22 June), Erbakan said that neither the government nor the powerful military -- which rules the country through the National Security Council -- will ever succeed in "silencing the voice of the people."

Erbakan's followers held a series of meetings over the weekend and vowed to continue their struggle by setting up a new party.

Former Virtue leader Recai Kutan claimed in the past that his party enjoyed the support of 30 to 40 percent of Turkish voters. But recent opinion polls show the party's popular backing is well below the 10 percent threshold needed for representation in parliament.

After winning only 15 percent of the vote in the 1999 legislative elections -- almost 7 percent less than the result attained by Welfare four years earlier -- Virtue was generally regarded as a fading political force.

Kutan's conservative old guard has been challenged by younger reformist party members, who advocate reconciliation between Turkey's Islamic tradition and Western democratic values. Before it was banned, Virtue was reportedly on the verge of a split.

Analysts say that, paradoxically, the court's verdict may eventually benefit the Islamic movement by allowing reformists and conservatives to separate peacefully.

Earlier this week (25 June), political analyst Gungor Mengi wrote in the "Sabah" daily that the emergence of what he described as a "conservative, democratic and modern alternative party" would be beneficial to Turkey, Islam, and democracy.

In an interview with our correspondent before the Constitutional Court ruling, political analyst Sami Kohen said he viewed former Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the most probable leader for a future, "modernized" Islamic party.

"[Erdogan] is quite an outstanding politician. He is quite active, he is young, he is considered a moderate and pragmatic [man]. He has been going around and trying to form his own party. So the [minute] the court will decide to close down the present Islamic party, we are sure that he will announce the formation of a new party."

Last Saturday (23 June), Virtue reformist leader -- and Erdogan's close associate -- Abdullah Gul said everything was now in place for the formation of a new party, which he said would make itself known in the near future. But it remains unclear how many of the 100 former Virtue deputies now officially registered as independent would join Erdogan's party.

Last week's court ruling could also alter Turkey's political landscape in another way.

Turkish media have reported that negotiations have started between some Virtue deputies and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, one of the three coalition partners in the government. The MHP, whose conservatism could attract some Virtue members, currently holds 127 seats in parliament, only eight fewer than Ecevit's Democratic Left Party, or DSP.

The balance between the MHP and the DSP could be reversed if a large number of Virtue deputies choose to join the MHP. That, in principle, could allow MHP leader and Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli to claim the right to run the government instead of Ecevit.

But on Saturday (23 June), Bahceli pledged that he would hold to a 1999 accord with his two coalition partners, which specified that changes in the strength of individual parties in parliament would have no impact on power-sharing among them.

Columnist Idiz believes that Bahceli will abide by the agreement and refrain from challenging Ecevit.

"Obviously, [Bahceli] is acting responsibly in the sense that he knows that a change in the coalition now would bring down a very delicate economic program. And this is something he cannot afford. Should he sort of [rock] the boat and endanger the [economic] program, this could affect his electoral prospects."

Remy Leveau is a regional analyst at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. He told RFE/RL that in his view, much more important than the Constitutional Court's decision is the stance the government and the army's high command adopts toward "political Islam" in the near future.

"If there is some room left for moderate Islamic movements, then the ban will be only one out of many episodes in Turkey's political life. Pressure has been exerted before on the Islamic movement by the political and military establishments. But if the Islamic movement has no room left to express itself, if Turkey's political system turns more and more authoritarian, then there is a risk that violence will remain almost the only way [for Islamic supporters] to express [their] political discontent."

Both Ecevit and Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz -- the leader of the ruling coalition's junior partner, the Motherland Party -- have said they regret the ban imposed on Virtue.

Last Tuesday (19 June), Yilmaz pledged the parliament would hold an extraordinary session in September to examine constitutional amendments required by the European Union to start accession talks with Ankara. Among the 37 proposed amendments is one that would make it harder to ban political parties.

The constitutional changes have been debated in parliament for months. But even if they are eventually adopted, they will have come too late to save Virtue.