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Saturday, January 17, 1998 Published at 12:32 GMT

World: Analysis

Turkey Bans The Islamists

Turkey's highest court has decided to close down the country's main Islamic party, Welfare, which has the largest number of seats in parliament. Welfare's leader, Necmettin Erbakan, and several other party officials have been banned from politics for the next five years. The state prosecutor said Welfare had violated the secular principles of the Turkish constitution. Our regional reporter, Caroline Hawley looks at the likely impact of the decision.

Welfare is the biggest party in parliament. In general elections in December 1995, it took more than twenty per cent of the vote. This made it possible in June 1996 for its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, to become the country's first Islamist prime minister, as part of a coalition government. But Mr Erbakan's rule proved short-lived. Turkey's powerful military, which sees itself as the guardian of the country's secular constitution, grew increasingly upset by what they saw as Welfare's attempts to Islamise the country, accusing the party of secretly planning to introduce Islamic rule. Less than a year after he took office, Mr Erbakan was forced to resign.

Now Turkey's secular establishment has gone one step further, deciding to outlaw Welfare altogether. A spokesman for the party -- which has more than four million members -- said the decision had cast a shadow over Turkish democracy. That view is shared by the international community. Concern over Turkey's human rights record -- particularly towards the Kurdish separatists fighting for autonomy in the south-east of the country -- was a key factor in the country being kept out of the European Union. The decision to close down the country's biggest party is certain to damage further Turkey's reputation abroad. It could also prove counter-productive. Across the Muslim world, government attempts to suppress Islamic groups and parties have served only to radicalize them.

Although Welfare was the biggest political party in parliament, the majority of Turks voted for secular parties. Some of them share the military's view that upholding the country's secular constitution is more important than democracy. But many are concerned that the decision to outlaw the Welfare party may only increase the appeal of political Islam.

This is the third time that an Islamic-oriented party led by Necmettin Erbakan has been banned. His National Order Party, formed in 1970, was banned a year later, following a military coup. He then formed another party -- the National Salvation Party -- which survived for several years before it was closed down in 1980 after another army coup. The Welfare Party is almost certain to re-appear under a different name. A new Islamic party, named Virtue, has already been formed in anticipation of the decision to ban Welfare.

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