Turkey's Ruling Party Survives High Court Vote

The highest court in Turkey narrowly voted against disbanding the ruling party Wednesday. The party had been accused of trying to impose Islamic law. Turkey's population is overwhelmingly Muslim, but the country has long had a strict secular system of government.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Many Turks are breathing a sigh of relief now that Turkey's highest court has decided not to ban the ruling party, which would've meant banning the government.

The ruling political party had been accused of trying to impose Islamic law. Turkey's population is overwhelmingly Muslim, but the country has long had a strict secular system of government. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul.

IVAN WATSON: The future of the Turkish government and - many here would argue -the future stability of the entire country rested in the hands of 11 judges. They had to decide whether or not to dissolve the ruling Justice and Development Party - or AK Party, as it's known here - and ban the president, prime minister and 69 other top AK Party officials from politics for the next five years.

Chief Justice HASIM KILIC (Turkey): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: When Chief Justice Hasim Kilic stepped in front of the cameras yesterday, he said he was fully aware that 70-million Turks were waiting to hear the court's decision.

Chief Justice KILIC: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: The AK Party will not be closed down, he said. However, six of the judges have voted for its closure.

According to Turkey's constitution, it would have taken at least seven of the 11 judges to ban Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's popularly elected government, a move that political analysts say would have derailed democratic reforms in Turkey and seriously undermined Turkey's bid to join the European Union. EU Officials and human-rights groups have welcomed the court's decision.

Soner Cagaptay is Turkey specialist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. SONER CAGAPTAY (Turkey Specialist, Washington Institute for Near East Policy): The court came out with an elegant solution to Turkey's ongoing debate on the balance between democracy and secularism, and it decided to side with both - in other words, protect both democracy and secularism.

WATSON: Cagaptay points out that the ruling party has received a stern warning from the court.

Mr. CAGAPTAY: Six out of the 11 members of the court have actually said that the AKP has become a focal point of anti-secular activities, violated Turkey's constitution, and that it has an Islamist agenda.

WATSON: The AK Party's most controversial policy was to try to lift the ban on women wearing Islamic head scarves in universities. The case polarized Turkish society, pitting the party's supporters - who tend to be working-class, observant Muslims from the provinces - against the country's traditional, secular, urban elite, who see the head scarf as a symbol of political Islam.

Chief Justice KILIC: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: In his statement yesterday, Chief Justice Hasim Kilic made an emotional appeal for unity, urging Turks to learn to live together regardless of belief or background.

One AK Party lawmaker called the court's decision a victory for democracy, but the party's leader, Prime Minister Erdogan, did not allow his supporters to organize wild celebrations.

Prime Minister RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (Turkey): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: In a speech at his party headquarters last night, Erdogan denied that he had an Islamist agenda. He said his party, and the entire country, had avoided a major disgrace, and he promised to redouble efforts on getting Turkey into the European Union. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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