Secular and Antidemocratic

Secular and Antidemocratic

IN MANY countries where elections and Islam overlap, religious political parties are suspected — often rightly — of trying to use the democratic system to advance an illiberal agenda. Turkey, the most advanced democracy in the Muslim world, has the opposite problem. Its mildly religious ruling party has led the way in introducing progressive political and economic reforms and preparing the country for membership in the European Union. Its secular opposition, meanwhile, has repeatedly resorted to antidemocratic tactics.

Last year the Turkish army, which sees itself as the ultimate guardian of Turkey”s secular constitution, tried to stop the Justice and Development Party (AKP) from electing its candidate for president by posting a threatening statement on its Web site. This “e-coup” led to a ruling by the Constitutional Court against the AKP — and then a general election that the party won decisively over secular parties that had abetted and cheered the court ruling. Abdullah Gul, a moderate and pro-Western politician, duly became president.

Rather than being chastened by this reversal, the secular establishment is attempting an even more radical maneuver. Egged on once again by opposition political parties, a state prosecutor filed a case in March seeking to ban the AKP and 70 of its members, including Mr. Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on charges of violating the constitution. The case is based in large part on the party”s move to lift a ban on the wearing of head scarves by women in Turkish universities, a highly charged if largely symbolic domestic issue. The prosecution mainly serves to reveal the weakness of the constitution, which makes it far too easy for courts to outlaw political parties on flimsy grounds.

A proper response to the lawsuit would be for Mr. Erdogan to press forward with his liberal reforms, including constitutional amendments that would change the criteria for banning political parties. But while the government has introduced legislation to change the constitution”s notorious criminalization of speech “insulting Turkishness,” it has been slow to react to the threat of banishment. The result may well be months of litigation followed by a ruling that plunges the political system into chaos.

The European Union has sent a clear message about the danger of undermining democracy. Javier Solana, its foreign policy chief, said that banning a party is “not something normal” and that “the consequences would be very grave” for Turkey”s relations with Europe. Unfortunately the Bush administration has not been nearly so clear. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last month that the case was “a matter . . . for Turks to decide,” adding only the “hope that this will be decided within Turkey”s secular democratic context and by its secular democratic principles” — whatever that means. In fact, the administration ought to make it plain that banning the AKP would cause serious damage to U.S.-Turkish relations. The United States has a vital interest in the success of Turkish democracy — and of the moderate Islamic party that now leads it.