Turkish Court Says Erdogan Not Ruling Party Head

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s Constitutional Court said on Wednesday it did not recognize Tayyip Erdogan as the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)–throwing new doubt over his bid to become prime minister.

It was not immediately clear what effect the ruling would have on the governance of NATO member Turkey as it grapples with economic difficulties and fears of war in Iraq.

But the AKP told Reuters it would re-elect Erdogan as leader within days to quash any doubts over who was in charge.

Erdogan is viewed with great suspicion by secular Turks–led by the military–for his roots in an Islamist movement. But he insists the AKP–founded from the moderate wing of a banned Islamist party–is a democratic pro-Western party.

He was banned from parliament because of a previous conviction for Islamic sedition–but is expected to run in a by-election in March and replace Abdullah Gul as prime minister.

Since guiding the AKP to a sweeping victory in November–Erdogan has been welcomed as Turkey’s de facto leader in world capitals in Europe–the United States and China.

The country’s top prosecutor had asked the court to suspend Erdogan as leader of the AKP as part of a broader action to ban the party on technical grounds.

The court refused the request–saying Erdogan had already disqualified himself from leadership.

"The majority view of the court is that Erdogan is not party leader,” judge Hasim Kilic told reporters.

In October–Erdogan surrendered at the prosecutor’s request the "founder member" status on which he was elected chairman when the AKP was founded in 2001.

Kilic argued that in so doing he had also surrendered his chairmanship.

"He should have resigned the chairmanship along with the founder membership,” Kilic said. “The fact that he has not resigned does not mean that he is chairman.”

But AKP deputy chairman Hayati Yazici said: "There is no obstacle to Erdogan becoming (AKP) chairman again. The founding board will meet as soon as possible to do what it has to do.”

LEGAL BATTLES

Erdogan–former mayor of Istanbul–is fighting a series of legal battles with a secularist establishment that sees him as chipping away at the letter of the law in EU candidate Turkey.

In a separate case–an Istanbul court cleared Erdogan on Wednesday of charges he interfered with commercial tenders issued by the city when he was mayor in the 1990s.

Prosecutors told the court they had insufficient evidence–Anatolian news agency said.

The Constitutional Court will continue hearing a move by the chief prosecutor–Sabih Kanadoglu–to shut the AKP for procedural breaches when it was set up.

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