Turkey steps back from brink as court rules against ruling party ban

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Turkey's highest court pulled the country back from the brink when it narrowly rejected calls for the ruling party to be shut down and its leaders banned from politics for allegedlyundermining the secular state.

After 30 hours of debate, six judges voted in favour of banning the party, four voted for financial penalties and one rejected the case. Seven judges would have had to vote in favour of the ban for it to pass. Instead of that nuclear option, the court contented itself with censuring the AK party (AKP), with all but one judge voting to remove half the party's state funding.

Calls for five-year political bans against 71 AKP politicians including the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the President Abdullah Gul were also dropped. "There's only one word to describe my reaction to the decision," said Koksal Toptan, AKP's speaker in parliament. "Phew."

Edibe Sozen, a senior member of the government, said she was "delighted". "Turkey's democracy will be strengthened by this decision, I have no doubt about that," she said, as she walked towards the AKP's Ankara-based headquarters to celebrate.

The court case was sparked by the AKP's efforts to end a ban on headscarves in universities. Since a senior prosecutor brought the indictment in mid-March, Turkish politics has been paralysed, blocking the country's halting EU bid and pushing decades-long tensions between pious and secular-minded Turks to a boiling point.

"Turkey desperately needed an immediate lowering of pressure," the AKP's Minister of Culture Ertugrul Gunay said yesterday. "I think this decision will help with that."

The judgment came as something of a surprise. Packed with judges appointed by a fiercely secularist former president, the court has sparked major debate twice over the past year with decisions against the government. The political chaos has severely hit Turkey's rapidly growing but fragile economy.

Reactions from Europe, where politicians had warned of a possible suspension of the EU accession process, were equally upbeat. A spokeswoman for the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, described the ruling as "positive".

The court spokesman Hasim Kilic said: "This ruling represents a serious warning to the party and I hope this conclusion will be evaluated and actions will be taken accordingly."

"The AKP has a lot of lessons to learn from the ruling," said Atilla Kart, a senior member of the secularist chief opposition party. "I hope [senior party members] remember the content of the speeches that were made after last year's electoral victory," he added, referring to Mr Erdogan's promise to be a party for all Turks.

The headscarf debacle was not the only mistake AKP has made. Many centrist voters who backed the party for its sound economic management have been turned off by Mr Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian rhetoric.

"The government has not passed a single reform worth its salt in two years," says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey analyst for Human Rights Watch. "Its first step must be to revive the long stalled human rights reform agenda."

Everything now depends on how the AKP reacts. Mr Erdogan recently admitted mistakes had been made.

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