Turkey Showdown Averted, For Now

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Adem Altan / AFP / Getty

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey's popularly elected, Islamist-rooted government survived to rule another day, after the country's top court narrowly ruled today against banning the ruling party. In a 6-5 opinion, Constitutional Court judges held that there was insufficient evidence backing the charge that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was undermining Turkey's secular democracy and seeking to turn the country into an Islamic state. The court did, however, issue a warning on the issue, and it cut public funding for the party by half, leaving Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan facing a monumental challenge to restore political stability in a nation riven by increasingly bitter divisions between secularists and government supporters.

"A closure verdict wasn't given because we didn't reach the required seven votes," judge Hasim Kilic told a packed news conference. "But this verdict is a serious warning. I hope that the party in question will draw the necessary conclusions."

The case has paralyzed Turkey since March, when chief prosecutor Abdurrahman Sarikaya filed an indictment urging that the AKP be banned for anti-secularist activities. The main item of evidence he used to back the claim was a government move earlier this year to lift the ban on female students wearing headscarves at universities. The headscarf issue is almost irrationally divisive — for the pious, it's a matter of religious freedom; for the secularists, it symbolizes a political movement they insist threatens their lifestyle. The government's approach to the issue — introducing the change overnight, with no public debate — was widely criticized, and it spurred the prosecutor into action. Erdogan recently conceded mistakes may have been made.

"The court decided to take the middle road," says Sahin Alpay, political scientist at Bahcesehir University. "The verdict neither humiliates that half of the population which voted for this government, nor does it disappoint those sections of society who have concerns about the AKP."

The trial had been widely seen as the final chapter in an ongoing showdown between the AKP and the secularist establishment, particularly in the military and the courts. A military attempt to stare down Erdogan last year over the nomination of his own party's Abdullah Gul for President backfired: Erdogan called snap elections and was returned to power with 47% of the vote, an even greater margin than from when he was first elected. This time, it was the turn of the judiciary to lead the charge for secularism.

Turkey's militant secularism dates back to the 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created a modern nation-state on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Determined that Turkey's future lay with the West and that modernization was its priority, Ataturk shut down religious schools, abolished the caliphate — Islam's equivalent to the papacy — changed the country's alphabet from Arabic to Roman script and enshrined the separation of mosque and state as a founding principle.

Still, political Islam never really went away. The AKP is the latest in a long line of faith-based parties banned by the courts, only to reemerge in a new guise on the back of a solid base of popular support. Unlike its predecessors, the AKP has steered clear of inflammatory Islamist rhetoric, pursued aggressively liberal economic policies and advocated for Turkey's joining the European Union.

None of that has mollified secularists. Hard-liners suspect the AKP of secretly wanting to turn Turkey into an Iranian-style theocracy. Moderates dispute that but are concerned about the AKP's failure to recognize religious minorities like the Alevi, its abandonment of plans to draw up a more democratic constitution (currently a holdover from military rule), and its conservative social policies on issues like women's status. It is these worries the government now needs to appease. "With the court case behind us, Turkey now needs to turn to its real agenda," says Alpay. "The Prime Minister needs to embrace all sections of society and listen to criticism directed against him and his party."

Turkey can ill afford a repeat of the court saga or continued and potentially explosive polarization; it would seem that Erdogan has little other option. Building broad social consensus may also be his only real guarantee against the secularist old guard, who have stepped in with military coups and judicial decisions against elected governments in the past, and may yet do so again. So while today's verdict was a victory for the government, it was also a warning.