June 8, 2015 / 3:17 PM / 2 years ago

Turkey's Kurds determined to push for peace after historic vote

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Emboldened by an historic election victory that has transformed their country's political landscape, Turkey's Kurds on Monday said they were determined to press Ankara to restart peace efforts to end three decades of insurgency.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) cleared a 10 percent hurdle to enter parliament for the first time at Sunday's parliamentary elections, picking up 80 of 550 seats and smashing President Tayyip Erdogan's hopes for a huge win for the governing AK Party.

The victory marks a stunning result for the Kurdish minority that represents nearly 20 percent of Turkey's population and was for decades the victim of state repression.

While Erdogan has denounced the party as a front for terrorists, the HDP under its charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtas enjoys support beyond the Kurdish community and, despite the likelihood of extensive political wrangling to come, hopes to put pressure on Ankara over the peace issue.

"I have never been more hopeful about peace," said 28-year-old Aziz Duran, who was selling traditional simit bread in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, where on Sunday thousands of HDP supporters spilled into the streets, cheering and setting off fireworks.

"For years we have been treated as less than flies. The state has always insulted us. Now we have 80 representatives in parliament."

In a major political gamble, Erdogan launched a peace process with jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2012 to end a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people.

But after pushing through reforms to boost the lot of the 14 million-strong Kurdish minority during his time as prime minister, Erdogan later squandered that goodwill. Kurds have accused him of backtracking on the peace process, which has been on hold for months.

"He promises peace but his language is all about hate. And when Kurdish people grasped that he is no longer true to his word, they gave him an answer in the ballot box," said retired publisher Alaattin Usta, 54.

That sense of betrayal was fueled by Erdogan's comment this year that there was no longer a "Kurdish problem" and anger at Ankara's perceived failure to support Kurds besieged by Islamic State militants in the Syrian town of Kobani last autumn.

TATTERED PEACE TALKS

Speaking to supporters in Istanbul on Sunday night, Demirtas said his party was committed to reviving peace talks.

"We are ready to do fulfill all of our responsibilities to resume the peace talks at the point that we left them, where they were left in tatters," he said.

Those efforts may be complicated by the AKP's failure to win a majority. Entering a coalition with the nationalists - seen as one scenario for the AKP - would be a blow to peace talks.

People in Diyarbakir said they did not believe the future of the peace process depended on the AK Party, but Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan poured cold water on that view, raising doubts about future cooperation between Ankara and the HDP.

"After this, the HDP will only be able to make a film about the peace process," he said.

Much will depend on whether Erdogan decides to throw his weight behind the peace talks, said Francis Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey now with the Atlantic Council.

"If he's behind it and the HDP are willing to work with him I think the whole process can move forward. It has suffered a lot, of course, through the last couple of election campaigns."

After such a historic night, grocer Ali Tas said his optimism was unshaken. "Why should the peace process be completely tied to the fate of one party?" he said while waiting on customers in his shop.

"It is in the hands of all of us, Turks and Kurds."

Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Writing by Daren Butler; editing by David Dolan and Giles Elgood

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