ANALYSIS / Will Turkey's Religious Row End in Political Turmoil?

Turkish court deliberates banning Erdogan's ruling party for steering nation toward Islamic rule.

Will Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan return to the balcony or has the lightbulb gone out? This is the question that Turkey's constitutional court will decide on in the next few days. If a majority of seven of 11 justices accepts the charges against the ruling AK Party, the party will be closed and its symbol - a glowing lightbulb - will go out.

If the court rejects the charges, Erdogan will be able to return to the party headquarters balcony where he spoke on July 22 last year after a sweeping victory in parliamentary elections, and again promise that his party will stick to constitutional values.

Erdogan's party is charged with becoming a focus of anti-secular activity and efforts to undermine the constitution's foundation. In practice, this means that the 70 lawmakers and the prime minister under indictment would not be able to engage in politics for five years, Turkish President Abdullah Gul's legitimacy would be undermined, and Turkey would have to hold new elections that could force the country into a political crisis of the sort that characterized the rule of Erdogan's predecessor, Bulent Ecevit. The parties couldn't form a stable coalition able to make substantial decisions and the country deteriorated into a severe economic crisis.

Since the AK Party's landslide election victory in 2002, Turkey is back on track economically, foreign investors have returned, the middle class is growing and the Turkish currency is stable. Dismantling the government and disbanding parliament would immediately freeze this economic rehabilitation amid paralyzing uncertainty on the next government's economic measures.

Such a decision could also affect Turkish negotiations for acceptance into the European Union. EU representatives have already said that such a decision would gravely oppose the foundations of democracy, and, in any case, the EU is in no rush to grant entry to a Turkey ruled by an Islamist party.

The constitutional court is aware of all the serious implications its ruling could carry, but it is also familiar with the anti-religious mood of the Turkish public and especially the army, charged with upholding the constitution. So it faces a dilemma in maneuvering between pressures.

The court could vote to shut down the party by an insufficient majority - having its say without practical significance - it could punish the party by taking away state financial assistance, and it could punish individual members without doing away with the entire party. Will it opt for these alternatives or will it close the party altogether? All of Turkey is holding its breath, and with good reason.