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Turkey's Highest Court Bars Islamist From Parliament

Government: The ruling is widely seen as part of a campaign to stamp out religious political movements in the nation.

April 20, 2002|AMBERIN ZAMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The nation's top court on Friday barred Turkey's leading Islamist politician from holding a seat in parliament, dashing his hopes of becoming the next prime minister.

The ruling--the latest in a string of legal challenges hampering Recep Tayyip Erdogan's bid to govern Turkey--is widely seen as part of a broader campaign led by military leaders and the judiciary to stamp out Islamic political movements in this largely Muslim but officially secular nation.

Erdogan was stripped of his post as Istanbul's mayor and banned from politics for life in 1998 for reciting verses of a nationalist poem--taught in state schools--that were deemed to incite religious hatred. He served four months in jail for the reading, convicted under an article of the penal code that has been used to imprison scores of dissident politicians, journalists and academics of all political stripes.

In January, the Constitutional Court ruled that Erdogan's conviction barred him from running for parliament. Publication of that ruling in Friday's Official Gazette put the court's decision into effect and closed off any appeal.

Only lawmakers in the 550-member parliament are eligible to become prime minister.

Erdogan, a former professional soccer player, had insisted that he was cleared of criminal charges under an amnesty law passed in 2000. He downplayed the impact of the court's decision on his Justice and Development Party.

"For us, it isn't that much of a difference," he said Friday. "It is out of the question that this will affect our leadership."

Murat Mercan, deputy chairman of the party, said he believes that parliament will amend the penal code article used to convict Erdogan, to bolster Turkey's long-running effort to join the European Union. "If we want to become a full-blooded Western-style democracy, such laws will have to change," he said in a telephone interview.

Many commentators here disagree.

Erdogan's "political career may not be over, but he will not become prime minister any time in the near future," said Rusen Cakir, a prominent author and commentator on Islamic politics.

For one thing, Turkey's ruling three-party coalition of conservatives, ultranationalists and leftists, which commands a majority in the parliament, is unlikely to change laws disqualifying Erdogan. Polls consistently show his bloc far ahead of each party that makes up the coalition, whose approval ratings have been battered by a yearlong recession.

Turkey's generals, who see themselves as custodians of the secular ideals advanced by the nation's founder, Kemal Ataturk, remain bitterly opposed to Erdogan. They maintain that Islamic radicalism is the gravest danger facing the nation.

The armed forces have seized power three times in the last four decades and played a key role in unseating Turkey's first Islamic-led government in 1997 on charges that it was seeking to introduce religious rule. Necmettin Erbakan, who led that government and is Erdogan's mentor, was barred from politics for five years, and his Welfare Party was outlawed by the Constitutional Court.

The Islamists regrouped under the Virtue Party, only to have it banned last year for anti-secular activities.

Erdogan formed his own party and has distanced himself from the radical rhetoric of his Islamist predecessors, saying he does not believe in mixing religion with politics. But his attacks on birth control and calls during recent rallies for a referendum on whether to ban alcohol have strengthened critics' claims that he has not changed his fundamentalist views.

Earlier this week, an investigation was launched over a 1992 speech Erdogan made criticizing the army.

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