Turkey Under Fire over Reform Delay

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s ruling party has came under fire from the European Commission over a decision to delay penal code reforms because of a row over its plans to criminalize adultery.

The postponement–personally ordered by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan–rattled Turkish financial markets and sparked incredulity among Ankara’s diplomatic community.

Leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) discussed the problem behind closed doors–but it seemed inevitable that parliament would not now approve the reform package before the Commission’s progress report on Turkey–due on October 6.

"Just when things were going so well for them they seem to have shot themselves in both feet," said one EU diplomat on Friday.

The AKP–which has roots in political Islam–withdrew the draft penal code late on Thursday after its drive to include the adultery ban was stymied by the center-left opposition.

The proposal to jail cheating spouses had outraged women’s rights groups and Turkish liberals and alarmed the EU. Earlier in the week the AKP had appeared to shelve the plans–only to try to revive them after Erdogan’s return from a foreign trip.

In Brussels–spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori said the Commission was concerned.

"We understand this delay is due to attempts … to reintroduce adultery as a criminal offense," he said. "Such provisions would certainly cast doubts on the direction of Turkey’s reform efforts and would risk complicating Turkey’s European prospects."

Asked on his way to the mosque on Friday whether Erdogan’s party might still reinsert the adultery ban into the penal code draft–AKP lawmaker Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat said: "There is no such decision at the moment." He made no further comment.

DECEMBER DECISION

The October 6 report will form the basis of a decision in December by the 25 EU leaders on whether to open long-delayed entry talks with Turkey–a Muslim country of 70 million people.

Financial markets are nervous that prolonged political wrangling could damage Turkey’s EU prospects.

Turkish shares were down 1.6 percent to 21,356.55 points in afternoon trade and the lira weakened against the dollar on the uncertainty.

"This (delay) is bad news for Turkey’s EU accession bid…This increases the chances that the Commission will attach strings to any date they might give to begin negotiations," said Tim Ash–an economist at Bear Stearns International.

Columnist Murat Yetkin of the liberal daily Radikal said Erdogan was trying not to upset the AKP’s mostly pious and conservative voters.

The EU diplomat said Erdogan had shown in the past–for example in tussles with Turkey’s powerful secular establishment over religious schools–that he knew when to back down.

"But this time he does not seem to realize how much ammunition he is handing to opponents of Turkey’s EU bid," he said. European public opinion remains very wary about admitting the large–relatively poor Muslim country into a wealthy club whose religious heritage is predominantly Christian.

But it was not all bad news for Turkey.

Incoming European Commission president Jose Manuel Durao Barroso said in a paper published on Friday that "the ongoing process of reform in the political and civil life of Turkey is welcomed".

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