ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday that the top prosecutor's effort to disband his Islamic-rooted party and bar him and the president from politics was "a step against the national will."
The ruling Justice and Development Party has long been at odds with Turkey's secular establishment, but Erdogan has denied accusations from the opposition that his government is trying to scrap Turkey's secularist traditions.
Chief prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya petitioned the Constitutional Court on Friday for the closure of the party, which dominates the 550-seat Parliament with 340 lawmakers. He said the party was "the focal point of anti-secular activities."
The indictment says Erdogan's party "has tried to chip away at the principle of secularism," by claiming that the constitutional description of secularism is "obscure," according to a court official who quoted it anonymously on Saturday because he was not allowed to release the information.
If the court agrees to hear the case, it would take several months to reach a verdict.
But it is not inconceivable that the prosecutor could succeed. The court disbanded a prime minister's Islamic party in 1997; the case was opened when he was in office but it did not finish until he left office under military pressure.
Any decision to bar Erdogan or President Abdullah Gul from engaging in politics could lead to political turmoil.
Erdogan said the petition was ungrounded and vowed to continue what he said was a "struggle for democracy." He has rejected allegations that he is eroding secularity, and points to his promotion of the sweeping reforms that helped Turkey secure talks with the European Union regarding membership.
"No one in this country can make the Justice and Development Party ... the focal point of anti-secularism," Erdogan told a group of fellow party members in Turkey's southeastern Siirt province during a prescheduled trip.
He said the petition "was not a step against the Justice and Development Party. It was a step against the national will."
The prosecutor's move took the mainly Muslim nation by surprise.
The prosecutor demanded that Erdogan and 69 other party members, plus Gul, who is not a member, be barred from political life for five years.
"No way. What is next?" read a headline on the front page of liberal Radikal newspaper on Saturday. "Shut down the Parliament too," said the mainstream Sabah newspaper in protest at the action.
Erdogan, like many others in his party, was involved in Turkey's political Islamic movement and was once jailed for publicly reciting a poem a court deemed to be inciting religious hatred.
The prosecutor's indictment said political Islam used democracy as a means to impose Islamic law, according to the court official. It did not openly associate the ruling party with the political Islamic movement, however, the court official said.
Justice and Development is the second party in Parliament which the prosecutor has moved to disband since last November. The other one is a pro-Kurdish party with 20 seats, which the prosecutor said was the "focal point of activities against the sovereignty of the state." The top court agreed to hear that case but the date for the first hearing has not been set.
Erdogan's party received more than 46 percent of the votes in last year's general election — an unusually large margin that encouraged it to act on its promises to pass legislation that would answer the demands of its conservative voters.
The party successfully pushed Parliament to rescind the decades-old ban on wearing the Islamic head scarf on campuses. The legislation, which is being reviewed by the Constitutional Court, unleashed a barrage of criticism that Erdogan was trying raise Islam's profile.
Erdogan and many of his legislators formerly were members of Premier Necmettin Erbakan's Welfare Party, an Islamic party which the Constitutional Court disbanded in 1997 on the grounds that it was engaged in anti-secular activity.
Although the case was opened while Erbakan briefly held power, the party was disbanded when it was in opposition.
Yalcinkaya had released a stern statement in January, at the height of the debate over headscarves, warning political parties that they could not "aim to change the secular principles of republic.
President Gul hinted at political turmoil ahead.
"Everyone should very carefully assess what Turkey would gain or lose due to an attempt like this against a ruling party with such majority," Gul told reporters, CNN-Turk television reported.