Turkey Bans Main Opposition Party

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s Constitutional Court banned the chief opposition party on Friday but stopped short of large scale expulsions from parliament that would have triggered by-elections and thrown IMF-backed financial reforms into doubt.

The court ruled that there were grounds to ban the Virtue Party–Turkey’s only Islamist party of any significance–which controlled 102 out of 550 seats–as a focus of “Islamist and anti-secular activities.”

It expelled two members from parliament and imposed political bans on five–stripping them of the right to found or join a political party for five years.

“It was decided by majority vote that the Virtue Party will be permanently closed…for activities contrary to the principle of the secular republic,” chief justice Mustafa Bumin said.

Bumin said the property of the party–whose popularity had faded dramatically in recent months–would be confiscated by the Treasury. The ban comes three years after the outlawing of another Islamist party–Welfare.

Welfare led a government for almost a year until it was eased from power by pressure from a coalition of business and other groups headed by Turkey’s powerful military. The armed forces–suspecting Islamist groups of planning an Islamic state–have played a strong role in a clampdown on political Islam.

Virtue’s expulsion seems likely to draw condemnation in the European Union–which Turkey seeks to join. Critics argue that banning parties – more than 20 have been outlawed since the 1960s – undermines democracy and fosters militancy.

“It is extremely saddening. Turkey continues to be a second-rate country,” Nazli Ilicak–a Virtue member expelled from parliament–told Reuters.

“I was saddened by the Virtue closure,” state-run Anatolian news agency quoted Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit as saying. “This happened because some parts of our constitution make closure too easy…With constitutional changes in the coming days and weeks in fact closing a party will become harder.”

Turkey’s chief public prosecutor–filing charges against Virtue–described Islamists as “vampires” roaming the land–feeding off political ignorance. Virtue denies it aims to establish religious law in Turkey and portrays itself as a center-right grouping with a religious “inner-core” comparable to European Christian Democrats.

Some financial analysts expressed relief that there had not been enough expulsions to trigger by-elections–but said they remained concerned. “The uncertainty has been decreased–but there are still lingering worries for the markets,” said Hakan Avci of Global Securities in Istanbul.

The lira has been trading near record lows and the stock market has come under pressure this week–and analysts said the continued uncertainty would cap any recovery.

Burak Akbulut of Bayindir Securities said his biggest fear was Virtue MPs joining the Nationalist Action Party (MHP)–which would establish the MHP as the biggest party in the coalition.

“That means the MHP is going to be the biggest party in parliament–and they don’t like the IMF and they don’t like (Economy Minister Kemal) Dervis,” he said.

Sheetal Radia–analyst at Standard and Poors in London–said the verdict was a relief–but the situation was still precarious. “If the political pressures don’t bring them down–the way they’re handling their debt funding problems might. I don’t think many governmen’s can survive with this liability.”

Turkey faces a substantial domestic debt rollover in forthcoming months. It desperately needs political stability to hold down interest rates and keep on course financial reforms crucial to $15.7 billion in crisis loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

“Shutting down Virtue will cause chaos in Turkish politics,” commentator Fehmi Koru said. “I don’t believe many of the Virtue MPs will move to the other parties in parliament–because it will be difficult for them to find suitable parties.

Two parties are expected to arise from the ruins of Virtue–one a “modernist” seeking broad support in the center-right and the other a more militant religion-based party.

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