Turkey Ruling Party Escapes Ban

Turkey's highest court says the country's Islam-oriented ruling party will not be banned. Instead, the Constitutional Court ruled, the Justice and Development Party won't get state funds. The ruling came after three days of deliberations.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Turkey's ruling political party is breathing a sigh of relief today after the country's highest court rejected a motion to ban it. The president, prime minister and 69 other top officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party were on trial for alleged Islamist activities, which a prosecutor said threatened Turkey's strict secular system of government.

Many Turks feared if the government was banned, it would plunge Turkey into chaos. NPR's Ivan Watson joins us now from Istanbul. And Ivan, there's a lot of suspense leading up to this decision today by the court. Tell us about the outcome.

IVAN WATSON: Well, nobody, really, in this country knew whether they'd have a government at the end of the week or not, and as the chief justice put it, the future of 70 million Turks depended on the 11 judges in the constitutional court. They had to decide, basically, whether or not to ban the government of the Justice and Development Party.

The prosecutor was calling for the president, the prime minister and 69 other party officials to be banned from politics for five years. In the end, six of the 11 judges voted for an outright ban. According to the Turkish constitution, you need seven judges to make a party ban, so instead the court opted for a milder punishment. They cut half of the ruling party's state funding, and they issued a warning to the party.

BLOCK: And Ivan, when the government is accused of anti-secular activities, what does that mean, exactly?

WATSON: Turkey is a majority Muslim country, but it has a very strict secular system of government, so the accusations from the prosecutor were that the Justice and Development Party, that this government, were secretly trying to undermine that secular system, that they were trying to secretly impose Islamist - an Islamist agenda, and the chief crime they were accused of was trying to lift a ban on women wearing Islamic head scarves in universities. That's a really controversial and polarizing issue here in Turkey.

BLOCK: So the ruling party has not been banned. What's the reaction been to this ruling today?

WATSON: I spoke to one lawmaker from the Justice and Development Party, or AK Party as it's known here, and he immediately called this a victory for democracy. European Union officials, they've also welcomed the decision. They say they hope this will restore political stability in Turkey, that Turkey's been trying to join the European Union, and it's been a bumpy process.

As for the secularist opposition here in Turkey, they are not hiding their disappointment. The leader of opposition accused the constitutional court of creating a crisis with this decision.

BLOCK: Do you think, Ivan, that this ruling means that the ruling party needs to change anything about the way it operates?

WATSON: I think many will interpret this as definitely a warning to them, and one governing party official lawmaker, he did say yes, we have learned some lessons from this.

As one political analyst put it, you know, this has been a success for democracy in Turkey, developing democracy here in a country with a history of military coups, but that it is also a lesson to everybody that it must remain a predominately secular democracy.

I think you're still going to have tension in the future between secularists, hard-core secularists in this country and observant Muslim Turks who want religion to play a bigger part of their daily life, but as one Western diplomat here put it, Melissa, everybody's going to be relieved to see that Turkey hasn't hit a brick wall, that it hasn't seen a popularly elected party that won 47 percent of the vote in the last elections banned, that that would have been a big blow to democracy in this country.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Ivan Watson in Istanbul. Ivan, thanks so much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Melissa.

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