Kurds make mark in poll to secure a bigger voice

Pro-Kurdish candidates nearly doubled their seats in Turkey's national elections, making sure the large minority's demands for greater rights will be heard loud and clear in the months to come.

Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK party was the big winner in this weekend's ballot, taking 50 per cent of the vote to give it an impressive mandate in its third consecutive term in power, with 326 seats out of a 550-seat chamber.

But the other side of the election was the gains made by Kurdish rights candidates, who needed to run as independents to circumvent rules requiring a party to get at least 10 per cent of the vote to get into parliament.

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A total of 36 candidates backed by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party won seats, a gain of 16 from the previous election. Among them was Leyla Zana, a former MP who spent ten years in prison on charges of links to Kurdish rebels that she always denied. In 1991, Zana also caused an uproar for speaking Kurdish while taking the oath of office, in defiance of rules against use of the language in official settings.

Kurdish rebels, deemed terrorists by the government, have been fighting a decades-long battle for independence in Turkey's north-east. More moderate Kurds say their main goals are to win basic rights like teaching their language in schools.

Independent candidates attracted around 60 per cent of the votes in at least three mainly Kurdish provinces in the south-east and won large protest votes in some Turkish cities, such as Istanbul.

"The second victors of the election were (the Kurdish] party," said Huseyin Celik, a senior AK party official.

Mr Erdogan said in a victory speech that he would work with other political parties for more laws to boost democracy and freedoms.

Kurds, who comprise about 20 per cent of the population of 74 million, are making more forceful demands for autonomy and the right to education in the Kurdish language.

Imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, whose Kurdistan Workers' Party has led a 27-year-old insurgency, has threatened more attacks unless Mr Erdogan's government negotiates an end to the conflict that has killed tens of thousands.

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