ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Sunday’s election has given Leyla Zana a fresh chance to voice her political vision for Turkey’s Kurds in parliament, 20 years after causing uproar when she spoke Kurdish at her first oath-swearing ceremony there.
The former Nobel Peace Prize nominee, who subsequently spent 10 years in jail convicted of links to Kurdish militants, is one of 36 Kurdish-backed candidates who won seats in the 550-seat assembly on Sunday.
Their strong showing, up from 22 in the previous parliament, is likely to push the Kurdish problem up the agenda of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party in his third term in office.
Under the umbrella of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the MPs are stepping up pressure for democratic autonomy in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey and for reforms to help end a 27-year separatist insurgency which has killed 40,000 people.
“The Kurds will be a partner of this state,” Zana, speaking in Kurdish, told tens of thousands celebrating the success of the BDP-backed candidates at a rally on Monday in Diyarbakir, where she released a white dove to send a message of peace.
In 1991, when she strode to the podium and took her oath, MPs banged on tables and shouted in anger at her headband in red, yellow and green - colors with Kurdish political symbolism and identified with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas.
She fueled the storm of protest — and broke the law — by finishing with a line in Kurdish: “I take this oath for the brotherhood of the Kurdish and Turkish people.”
While in jail she was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought in 1995.
Born in 1961 and married at 14 to her cousin Mehdi Zana, who was the mayor of Diyarbakir until a military coup in 1980, she has continued her political career since her release in 2004.
When they pledge their oath this month, she said on Tuesday, the Kurdish deputies are not planning a similar gesture, acknowledging the changes in Turkey since then.
“I made my oath in 1991 in Kurdish, but the situation now is different,” she said. “We will try to solve the problem and it’s important that we identify properly the future of our people.”
In recent years, the government has pushed through cultural and linguistic reforms to improve the rights of the Kurdish minority, which has been subject to assimilation policies for decades.
But Kurdish politicians say more fundamental political reforms are necessary. Some say frustration at the pace of reform has led to larger numbers of Kurdish youths joining the PKK in the mountains of northern Iraq.
The BDP wants mother-tongue education in Kurdish, the release of those it says are political prisoners, an end to military operations against the PKK and the lowering of a 10 percent threshold which keeps small parties out of parliament.
It circumvented that obstacle by running its candidates as independents who will now form a party group in the assembly.
Ultimately, it wants autonomy for mainly Kurdish provinces as well as the release of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Erdogan plans to push through parliament a new constitution to strengthen democracy, and Kurds are calling for it to include articles protecting the rights of the Kurdish minority, numbering up to 15 million, 20 percent of the population.
His room for maneuver is limited by nationalist anger and bitterness at the killing of soldiers and civilians by the PKK, listed as a terrorist group by the United States and the EU.
Hanging over the reform process is the prospect of an upsurge in the guerrilla conflict, with Ocalan threatening “war” unless the government enters talks after the election, and setting a deadline of June 15.
On Tuesday, Turkish troops killed three PKK guerrillas in central Turkey in the first clash since the election.
BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, who resigned his post to run as an independent, said the government must talk with Ocalan and consult the BDP on the constitution.
“We are partners for talks on the constitution. Elected politicians must continue discussions with Ocalan to halt this war... The government must not avoid this,” he told constituents in mountainous Hakkari on the border with Iraq and Iran.
Erdogan will need support from outside the AKP to send the reform to a referendum, but his recent comment that the Kurdish problem is now largely solved suggests he is unlikely to bow to Kurdish demands on issues such as autonomy.
Despite their election success, the BDP and its supporters face a rocky path ahead because of a stream of court cases over links to the PKK and charges of spreading its propaganda through reverential speeches about the rebels and Ocalan.
Since her release from prison in 2004, Zana has herself been convicted several times for such comments. She will now have immunity from prosecution during her time as an MP but some of her colleagues face a more uncertain future.
Hatip Dicle, one of three Kurdish deputies jailed with Zana in 1994, also won a seat in parliament but election authorities must rule on his eligibility after an appeals court rejected his final challenge to an earlier conviction.
He is one of six newly elected Kurdish MPs currently in jail charged with links to the PKK in a Diyarbakir trial of 150 Kurdish politicians and activists. Several thousand people have been detained in related investigations across the region.
In response to that, the BDP began a campaign of civil disobedience in March, supported by Ocalan, and are likely to sustain that unless progress on reforms is forthcoming.
Former Kurdish party leader Ahmet Turk, also elected on Sunday, said Turkey had an important opportunity for change.
“If the government and state does not set out a road map and make convincing statements for solving the Kurdish problem on June 15, we will be faced with a situation unacceptable for the Kurds,” he told a news conference.
Additional reporting by Seyhmus Cakan and Ece Toksabay, writing by Daren Butler, editing by Tim Pearce