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Turkey Shuts Down Islamic Party

January 16, 1998

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) _ Turkey’s top court outlawed a powerful Islamic political movement Friday, a victory for the Western-oriented secular establishment of the overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

Still, the ruling banning the Welfare Party threatened to further strain Turkey’s ties with the European Union and other Western allies, which had characterized its attempts to quash the largest party in parliament as undemocratic.

It also may prove to be little more than a temporary victory for opponents of the Islamic political movement _ a new Islamic party, Virtue, had already formed in anticipation of the ruling. Twice since 1970, Turkey had banned predecessors of Welfare, only to see it reborn under new names.

Necmettin Erbakan, chief of the now-banned party, said Friday’s verdict would never stop Turkey’s Islamic movement. ``Our cause will grow stronger, and Welfare will come to power alone one day,″ he declared, asking his followers to stay calm.

Fearing protests, the government posted riot troops around Welfare Party headquarters and the Constitutional Court.

Chief Justice Ahmet Necdet Sezer said the Islamic-based party was in violation of the country’s secular doctrines, enshrined in Turkey’s constitution and enforced by Turkey’s dominant military.

``Secularism is the basic tenet of the Turkish state,″ Sezer said after the court’s 9-2 vote.

``It’s unthinkable to have a democracy without political parties. But it doesn’t mean that no limits should be put on them,″ the chief justice told reporters.

Under the ruling, Erbakan and five other deputies lose their parliamentary seats, and with that, immunity from prosecution. Erbakan, 71, and the others are banned from joining any party for five years and the Welfare Party must surrender its assets to the government.

Government funds of $6 million allocated to the party for 1998 were already frozen Monday and will be turned over to the state.

Erbakan said he would appeal to the European Human Rights Commission. ``It is our duty to expose the decision as a great legal mistake,″ he said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said the court ruling damages confidence in Turkey’s democratic, multiparty system.

``The answer to many of Turkey’s problems is to enhance democracy, to adopt reforms that would allow greater freedom of expression and wider political participation,″ he said.

Turkey, a NATO member, is anxious for recognition as an equal partner to Western countries and was incensed last year when the European Union blocked its bid at membership, again citing shortcomings in its democracy.

Turkish law ban parties based on ethnicity, religion or communist ideology. The Constitutional Court has shut down many Kurdish and communist parties in the past, as well as a predecessor of Welfare in 1971.

Its successor, the Erbakan-led National Salvation Party, was closed along with other parties in a 1980 military coup.

Welfare was founded in July 1983. Its lawmakers built support in villages and teeming urban slums, reaching out with better roads and sewers, health clinics and free food.

The movement won 21 percent of the votes in 1995 elections, giving it 158 of the 550 seats in Parliament. Erbakan led the country in a center-right coalition until June, when he resigned as prime minister under pressure from the military.

Speeches by Welfare leaders and actions by Erbakan’s government _ such as forming closer ties with Iran and Libya and allowing civil servants to work shorter hours during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan _ were part of the basis for the government’s case.

While Welfare sought a moderate Islamic state, Erbakan’s rhetoric sometimes drifted toward extremes.

He once called Welfare an ``Islamic jihad army″ and insisted that Welfare’s Islamic-guided principles will one day rule Turkey regardless if the transition is ``sweet or bloody.″

Welfare backers protested that the party was being unfairly punished by a system incapable of recognizing that religion and politics can coexist.

Unlike many other nations where governments are struggling to keep Islamic movements from power, Turkey’s Islamic movement has never been violent.

``As long as the Islamic movement maintains representation in Parliament, Turkey will not be another Algeria,″ sociologist Sencer Ayata said.

Erbakan, who has pushed the Islamic political cause in Turkey for 30 years, has rebounded from past party closures, the coup, jail and exile.

This time, his age may not give him time for a comeback.

``The movement lost its best player. There will be inner clashes and loss of discipline,″ Ayata predicted.

Turkey’s military sees itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secular traditions, and Erbakan had alarmed the generals with his moves to allow female civil servants to wear Islamic attire at work and to rearrange working hours to fit fasting times in the holy month of Ramadan.

The military was also outraged by calls for an Islamic regime at rallies and in speeches by Welfare leaders.

Turkey’s military sees itself as the guardian of +Turkey+’s secular traditions, and Erbakan had alarmed the generals with his moves to allow female civil servants to wear Islamic attire at work and to rearrange working hours to fit fasting times in the holy month of Ramadan.

The military was also outraged by calls for an Islamic regime at rallies and in speeches by Welfare leaders.