Day of decision for Turkey over future of secular state

Turkey's highest court is to make the toughest decision in its 46-year history this week: 11 judges must decide whether to outlaw the ruling party and ban the President, the Prime Minister and 69 other elected officials, on the grounds that they pose a threat to the secular state.

A decision against the party that has ruled for the past six years would be the nuclear option, bringing chaos to a country already accustomed to coups, economic crashes and domestic terrorism. The Constitutional Court of Turkey convened yesterday while the country was still recovering from a deadly double bombing in its largest city, Istanbul, that killed 17 people and injured more than 150.

Superficially, the legal conundrum reflects divisions in this overwhelmingly Muslim country between secularists, convinced that Islam is a private matter, and pious Turks, battling for their place in the sun. For the prosecutor who launched the case in March, the government's ultimate aim "is to establish a state system based on religious principles", and the country is "in danger as it has never been before".

The 160-page indictment, comprised mainly of speeches made by members of the AK Party, cites the party's efforts this February to lift a ban on women's headscarves in universities among the accusations.

In its defence, the AK Party said on 3 July that it had "no secret agenda". Since its election in 2002, it has repeatedly insisted that it has turned its back on its conservative Islamic roots, and it has been one of the most liberal, pro-European parties in Turkish history. The European Union and – more mutely – the United States have criticised the indictment, which could end with the closure of the party and five-year political bans on 71 of its members – including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul.

The judges could reach a decision today, but that is unlikely. In similar cases brought against two other Islamic parties, in 1998 and 2002, the court took eight and 11 days to rule for closure.

Since the Constitutional Court was established, in 1962, some 24 political parties have been closed down, but the AK Party is the first to face closure while in government. "This is the nuclear option," says Mehmet Ali Birand, a prominent journalist. Emine Ozturk, an engineer who shares many secular women's fear of the government, said: "The AK Party is trying to turn Turkey into Iran and it deserves everything it is going to get."

The case is not just about Islam and secularism. It is also a by-product of a country changing faster than at any stage in its 85-year history. In the past, Turkey was run by a coalition of civilian politicians and the army. "Politicians have the drum, but somebody else has the sticks," Suleyman Demirel, who was prime minister five times, once quipped.

But reforms pushed through to ensure a start to European Union accession negotiations in 2004 weakened the military's power. Turkey has suffered three full-on coups since 1960, but these now seem a thing of the past. The AK Party has aggravated the new imbalance by refusing to show its predecessors' willingness to share power. Mr Erdogan even described the armed forces' chief of staff last year as "a civil servant who answers to me".

"Chaos stems from the fact that Turkey wants neither the old system nor to surrender itself to Erdogan's will," said Metin Munir, an analyst.

But Mr Erdogan struck a more moderate tone this week. "Of course we made mistakes," he told Hurriyet, Turkey's most influential daily newspaper, on Saturday. "We need to restore social harmony." Struck by his calm, the journalist interviewing him asked if he had inside information about a positive outcome to the case. Mr Erdogan, a former semi-professional footballer and Islamic firebrand, brushed off the speculation. But two international banks recently published reports saying the same, and the belief that the party may escape closure has been growing over the past fortnight.

Haluk Sahin, a political commentator, thinks "common sense" will win out. The AK Party, he points out, was born after the court closure of an Islamic party in the 1990s. "Close it again, and it will come back under a new name and win elections again," he said. "There's no opposition worthy of the name." Other analysts expect it to be closed. Choosing not to close the party "would be a decision based on little more solid than Erdogan's promises of moderation", argues Wolfango Piccoli, a Turkey analyst at the London-based strategists Eurasia Group.

Regardless of the legal decision, many analysts expect early elections later this year. The AK Party's heart and soul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is expected to try to sidestep a possible personal ban on political activities by standing as an independent. He did it in the past. If he does it again, analysts warn, it could lead to a fresh outbreak in hostilities, wasting another year in Turkey's stumbling efforts to join the EU.