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Ruling Restores Turkey's Fragile Stability -- For Now

Anti-AK demonstrators in Istanbul
Anti-AK demonstrators in Istanbul
The message was clear: Turkey's ruling Justice and Development (AK) party will remain in power, but receives a yellow card. Hasim Kilic, chairman of Turkey's Constitutional Court, announced the verdict after three days of deliberation by 11 court justices. The country's general prosecutor had asked the court to ban the AK party, arguing it is unlawfully trying to replace Turkey's secular system with an Islamic one.

The AK party, which was voted into power in 2002, gained popularity by initiating modernizing economic reforms. It actively promoted the country's EU membership bid, improved relations with Turkey's neighbors, and gained regional and international support.

But political events over the last few months -- starting with head-scarf issue; followed by the selection by parliament of the current president, Abdullah Gul; and ending in the bid to outlaw the AK party -- prompted fears at home and abroad of possible crisis and chaos in the country.

The court's decision on July 30 has allayed these concerns -- for now, at least.

But the party scraped by on the smallest of margins. Seven votes were needed to ban the party, and six judges voted for exactly that. Four others voted for cutting all state funding to the party, and only one judge of 11 voted for no sanctions against AK.

Clearly, although the court did not ban the party, the decision sends a strong warning. According to the verdict, state aid for the party will be cut in half, by an estimated $15 million this year. Kilic also warned the party to assess its positions carefully and urged its leadership to take "necessary" measures."

Turkish analysts noted that by a 10 to one majority, the court found that the AK's activities were not entirely in keeping with the law. But the justices apparently declined to ban the party outright for fear of the threat of instability.

Despite the court's warning, the long-awaited decision came as a relief to AK supporters. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan restated the party's commitment to a secular state. "The Justice and Development party, which has never been a focal point of antisecular activities, will continue to defend the basic principles of the republic," Erdogan said.

In fact, the reaction throughout the country and abroad has been one of relief. Almost all the country's political parties hailed the ruling as a step forward and urged everyone to respect it. A spokeswoman for EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana called the verdict "positive" and said, "Turkey is living a tense situation, and we very much hope that the decision by the court will contribute to restore political stability." U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States has confidence in Turkey, the Turkish people, and Turkish democracy. "The court has rendered an opinion," he said, "and we're going to continue to work with this government. We work quite well with them."

Despite the seeming solidarity of the response to the court's ruling, deep divisions within Turkish society remain. Secularists still believe AK intends to create an Islamic state in Turkey. The secular system is broadly supported by the military, the judiciary, much of the mass media, and the general population in large urban centers like Istanbul and Izmir.

The secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), a center-left party that is the AK's strongest and most vocal opponent, continues to use legal and electoral tactics to try to oust the ruling party. The military has also issued hard-to-ignore warnings about the allegedly antisecular activities of the AK party. In recent years, intellectuals, the secularist media, jurists, students, and other groups in urban areas have become increasingly vocal and active in defending the secular system.

Nonetheless, AK still enjoys the strong support of average people throughout the country. The economy has flourished since the party came to power and the population clearly relishes the prospect of long-term economic stability. The fight against terrorism has intensified and seen some successes. EU accession talks have moved forward. For the first time in recent history, Turkey has a single-party government that has managed to hold onto power for six straight years.

The July 30 court ruling will open the road for AK to advance its agenda, particularly on EU membership, overhauling the constitution, resolving the Cyprus issue, implementing reforms in the Kurdish regions, and moving forward with the country's first nuclear reactor.

With the court ruling and AK's broad popularity at home and abroad, it seems unlikely the secular establishment will have much chance of changing the rules of the game in the immediate future. There is certainly no support for a military coup, and opposition parties are deeply divided among themselves on policy issues. But the game is not over yet. If AK fails to heed the court's ruling and take serious measures, another legal battle -- with a different outcome -- may still lie ahead.

Rod Shahidi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL