ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey's Islamic-rooted government was elected last year with a huge majority, continues to bask in popular support — and will probably fall within a month.
The strange state of affairs is not due to any internal revolt or opposition threat, but to a case before Turkey's Constitutional Court that seeks to ban the Justice and Development Party on charges of undermining secularism.
With the court stacked with members of the secular elite, many Turks expect to see their democratically elected government booted out.
The consequences could be grave for Turkey's bid to join the European Union and for stability in this NATO member of 70 million people that strategically straddles Europe and the Middle East.
Foreign investors could be unsettled, and political gridlock would halt crucial reforms. Perhaps most importantly, such a radical step would trigger questions in an already leery EU about whether Turkey is the mature democracy it portrays itself to be.
Turkey's top prosecutor, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, argues that the ruling party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, is systematically trying to impose Islam on Turkey — a charge vehemently denied by the party, which is far from a proponent of Islamic fundamentalism.
The indictment cites the government's effort to lift a ban on Islamic head scarves in universities and other measures meant to expand the rights of devout Muslims in the educational system, as well as attempts to shut down pig farms and restrict alcohol advertising on TV.
Supporters of a ban, which could not be appealed, say the secular values canonized after World War I by modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, must be defended at all costs.
"Secularism is the backbone of the regime in Turkey and it is out of question to allow a political party to pursue Islamic policies to chip away at it," said Ulku Azrak, a law professor at Istanbul's Maltepe University.
But some observers, including EU leaders weighing Turkey's membership bid, are beginning to consider the AKP as better for democracy than the secularists, whose intolerance of religious symbolism is seen as running counter to liberal values.
In turning the principles of Ataturk into a rigid orthodoxy, the secularists have shown a strong authoritarian streak that sits ill with the nation's ambitions to join the European bloc. And their nationalism has led them to bridle at most EU. demands for reform.
By contrast, the government has been credited with maintaining the political and financial stability seen as critical to bringing about reforms needed to revive the nation's EU bid, including curbing the military's say in politics and expanding free speech.
The party's supporters say the prosecutor's argument ignores a record of Western-style reforms and amounts to fear mongering.
"AKP represents a pathway to freedom for the people," said Osman Yuksel, a 41-year-old shop owner. "Closing the AKP would be wrong and will not solve any problems. I do not think AKP is a threat to secularism. That idea is just a fixation of the military."
Still, any attempt to relax the state's uncompromisingly secular stance in this 99 percent Muslim country has long been met with strident protests from the urban elite as well as the army — which has staged three coups amid civil strife or political turmoil since the 1960s.
The Constitutional Court has shut down political parties in the past, but never a ruling party and none as popular as the one led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
If the court rules for the prosecution, several party members, including Erdogan, could lose their seats and be barred from joining a political party for five years, although they would still be eligible to run for Parliament as independents.
The party would regroup under a different name and the barred legislators would run — and likely be elected — as independents who would then informally align themselves with the newly established party.
But more than a name change is at stake.
While Erdogan and his allies would likely triumph in new elections, the ban would severely damage the old AKP machinery — leading to the seizure of $37 million in public funds allocated to the party this year as well as its assets, including a newly built party headquarters.