ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's ruling party has begun to expect that the Constitutional Court will close it down in the next few months and ban the prime minister from politics, and is now searching for a way to hold onto power, senior party members have told Reuters.
Turkey was plunged into political turmoil in March when the Constitutional Court accepted a case by the Court of Appeals' chief prosecutor, who seeks the closure of the AK Party.
He also wants 71 party members banned, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, over accusations they breached Turkey's secular constitution by supporting Islamist activities.
After weeks of upbeat statements, the Islamist-rooted AK Party now believes its chances for survival are bleak, and has begun planning how to return to power as a new movement.
"The AK Party will be closed, Erdogan is expected to be banned and some other members too," a government minister, who declined to be named, told Reuters. "This view is shared by many in the cabinet."
Another senior AK Party member agreed, adding that there was a high possibility that Gul, who was elected by parliament last year, would also be banned from belonging to a political party for five years. As Gul is president, any ban would take effect only once his term ends.
"I'm very worried for Turkey's future, but our fate lies in the hands of the 11 judges and we can only predict what they will decide," the senior AK Party member, who declined to be named, told Reuters. "The mood is very dark in the party."
The court has not commented, apart from criticising those who have sought to exert pressure on the judges.
EU SAYS USE BALLOT BOX NOT COURTROOM
The European Union, which Turkey wants to join, has criticised the case, saying that the kind of charges raised by the chief prosecutor should be debated in parliament and decided through the ballot box, not in the courtroom.
Turkish financial markets have been hit, with analysts seeing months of instability and a threat to political and economic reforms.
The Constitutional Court, which sees it as its duty to defend the secular principles of the republic, may rule on the case as early as July, senior AK Party members said.
"We would then form a new party," a senior party member said.
The AK Party, which won re-election last year, strongly denies the charges and says they are politically motivated.
Turkey has banned more than 20 political parties for alleged Islamist or Kurdish separatist activities, including the predecessor of the AK Party as recently as 2001.
There are a number of possibilities open for the AK Party and its leaders, were the court to rule against them.
Party executives are currently working on creating a new political party, the AK Party sources said.
If Erdogan and a large number of MPs are banned, a new parliamentary election is most likely. The MPs, including Erdogan, would then run as independent candidates and, once elected, create a new party under another name, sources said.
Some legal experts say Erdogan may be able to become prime minister under the new party. If not, the popular politician would try to run the party from behind the scenes.
"If Erdogan can't be the leader of the new party, we'd be in danger because we currently don't really have a strong number two to run it," the senior AK Party member said.
The case appears to be the last chance for the secularist establishment to halt a steady march by the AK Party and its leaders towards controlling Turkey's key state institutions.
The ruling party's decision to lift a ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf at universities was seen as a catalyst for the closure case, the indictment for which is packed with references to the headscarf.
Turkey's secularist establishment sees the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam. Though predominantly Muslim, Turkey was founded as a secular state in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and a powerful elite of military, judicial and academic officials see themselves as the custodians of secularism.
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