Turkey Dodges Crisis High Court Opts for Handslap over Ban

Turkey's national crisis has ended for now. With a single-vote majority, its Constitutional Court prevented a ban on the Islamist-rooted governing AKP party. Prime Minister Erdogan appeared publicly just hours after the ruling, but it was a clear slap in the face and he was in no mood to celebrate.
Von Jürgen Gottschlich

"Democracy has prevailed. Stability remains in place. We have successfully fulfilled our responsibility in recent weeks."

Those were not the words of a man celebrating a triumph.

Only three hours after the Turkish Constitutional Court issued its decision in a trial to ban the AKP, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is speaking to his supporters from his party's headquarters. He behaves as if he has just survived a natural disaster. He seems completely sober, even wooden, as he rejects applause and seeks to portray himself as a calm statesman.

He has, by all rights, good reason to exhibit his relief in a public way. The national crisis in Turkey has ended. The judges announced their verdict late Wednesday afternoon, a decision reached with an extremely thin majority. Six of the 11 judges voted in favor of a ban. With just one more vote, Turkey's governing party, the AKP, would have been forced to dissolve.

When Turkish television announced, shortly before 4 p.m., that the Constitution Court's decision could be expected on Wednesday, crowds assembled spontaneously in many locations throughout Istanbul. Clusters of people congregated in front of every television set in corner bars, snack bars and on the city's ferries -- all waiting impatiently for a court decision that would affect them all.

For more than two hours, the major news channels sought to fill the waiting period with preliminary debates, repeatedly interjecting shots of the empty courtroom, until Chief Justice Hasim Kilic finally appeared. The man seemed visibly exhausted, probably because he had just experienced the most trying months of his life. Before finally announcing the results of the court's final deliberations, he gave vent to his feelings and complained about the excessive public pressure to which the court had been exposed.

A Stern Reprimand for the AKP

Many commentators had crossed the threshold of personal insult, the judge said. Never again should a court in Turkey be placed under such pressure, he added, calling on politicians to pass laws that would make banning political parties impossible so that the burden of making political decisions doesn't end up in a courtroom once again.

Only then did he announce that there had not been a sufficient majority within the court to ban the AKP and exclude Prime Minister Erdogan and other leading party officials from politics. Nevertheless, said Kilic, the decision was a stern reprimand for the AKP. To emphasize this, the court ruled that the AKP's government funding be cut in half.

The recipient of the court's message seemed to have lost his capacity for speech at first. Initially, neither Erdogan nor any other senior representative of the AKP appeared in public. Only parliamentary speaker Köksal Toptan spoke very cautiously about a victory for democracy. Later, in his speech, Erdogan once again rejected the prosecution's charges that the AKP is trying to Islamicize Turkey. His party, Erdogan said, was "never a center of activities against secularism" and the separation of religion and state and, in the future, would campaign on behalf of the "fundamental values of our republic."

"They aren't exactly lighting a bonfire yet," Rusen Cakir, a guest on the NTV news channel, said dryly. "A triumphant howl by the AKP would probably be the worst thing that could happen." Haluk Sahin, a prominent columnist with the left-leaning daily newspaper Radikal and a professor of communications, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that he hoped "that the AKP leadership will take the ruling to heart and will pursue policies in the future that are oriented toward national reconciliation."

The ruling was of "almost surgical precision," says Sahin. And it was a serious warning "that was not coated wit a ban on a party." Erdogan, according to Sahin, will now get a second chance, which he will "hopefully seize more effectively than after his great election victory in July of last year."

A Positive Signal for EU Rapprochement?

In the months following Turkey's elections, many disappointed liberals and leftists turned away from the AKP because, in contrast to its promises, it had neither advanced the reform process needed to secure European Union membership nor supported the creation of a new, liberal constitution.

Instead, they joined forces with the radical right-wing MHP in parliament to achieve a constitutional amendment that was merely intended to lift the ban on wearing headscarves at universities and in government offices. Only a few weeks ago, the same group of judges that had now rejected a ban on the AKP scrapped this constitutional amendment with a large majority. "This means that the red line is clearly marked," said Mehmet Ali Birand, an anchorman at Channel D, a television station owned by Dogan, the largest Turkish media group.

So far the decision has only triggered true relief among the European proponents of Turkish harmonization with the EU. Jost Lagendeijk, a Dutch Green Party member and the co-chairman of the EU parliamentary committee on Turkey, expressed his relief.

"A ban would have been extremely counterproductive in terms of Turkey's EU prospects," he said.

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