Islamists Open New Turkish Party After Ban

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkish Islamists on Tuesday announced the formation of a new party that is expected to offer a serious challenge to mainstream conservative groups at the country’s next elections.

The new Justice and Development Party is expected to be led by popular former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan and is filled with reform-minded members of the Virtue Party–an Islam-based group Turkey’s Constitutional Court shut down in June on charges it was a hotbed of anti-secular activities.

Overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey’s constitution strictly separates state and religion. The country’s powerful military–which has staged three coups since 1960–is the self-appointed guardian of secularism.

Erdogan was jailed in 1999 for "inciting hatred" in a speech to Islamist supporters. He was subsequently banned from political activity–but a recent Constitutional Court decision paved the way for a return to politics.

He now leads a group of moderate lawmakers from Virtue–which had been the main opposition party in the 550-seat parliament. Virtue MPs became independents after the closure.

The new party will also be known by its Turkish initials–AK–which means white or clean.

Elections are not due until 2004–and the ruling coalition government is locked into a $15.7 billion IMF-backed crisis recovery program.

The country has closed four previous Islam-based parties and the courts take a dim view of mixing politics with religion.

The army forced the Welfare Party–which headed Turkey’s first Islamist-led government–from power in 1997. Welfare was later banned–and its leader Necmettin Erbakan barred from politics for five years.

Erbakan–the architect of political Islam in Turkey–is widely seen as wielding influence over a traditional faction of the Islamist movement–the Saadet Party which was set up last month.

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