Niece of jailed Kurdish leader enters Turkish parliament

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For many Turks, the name Ocalan is indelibly linked to the man they revile as leader of a Kurdish insurgency in which 40,000 people died. But on Tuesday, an Ocalan became one of the country's youngest parliamentarians.

Dilek Ocalan, the 28-year-old niece of jailed militant leader Abdullah Ocalan, took her oath along with other deputies elected to parliament earlier this month. Her arrival as a lawmaker for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) underlines a remarkable turnaround in recent years for Turkey's 14 million Kurds.

It also breaks a decades-old taboo over her name. At her swearing in, the speaker addressed her as “Sayin Ocalan” using an honorific that means “esteemed.” Scores of people have been prosecuted in the past for using the same term to refer to her uncle.

Her appearance in parliament would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But President Tayyip Erdogan braved the anger of nationalists to open talks with Abdullah Ocalan and his Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and it was Dilek who delivered many of her uncle’s public statements from his prison.

“First of all I see myself as a representative of women and youth,” she recently told local media. “I may be Kurdish, but I will be representing all those exploited, oppressed, ignored groups, all peoples, cultures, beliefs and languages.”

Dilek Ocalan was one of 80 HDP politicians elected on June 7. The HDP won more than 10 percent of the vote, the minimum required to enter parliament, allowing a pro-Kurdish party to be represented for the first time.

Its success also helped to deprive the governing AK Party founded by Erdogan of a majority for the first time in over a decade. The AKP now needs to find a coalition partner.

Peace process

A university graduate with a degree in tourism, Dilek Ocalan previously worked at a municipal office in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. She will represent Sanliurfa, a province in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

Abdullah Ocalan probably opposed her candidacy, his brother Mehmet Ocalan told Dogan News Agency in April. The PKK, which wants greater Kurdish autonomy, is still considered a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union and Turkey.

Among other HDP deputies sworn in on Tuesday was Leyla Zana, who caused uproar in 1991 when she was also elected to parliament. On that occasion, she took her oath in Turkish but added one sentence in Kurdish even though it was illegal to speak the language in public places at the time. She was subsequently jailed for a decade.

As prime minister, Erdogan pushed through reforms to improve the lot of the Kurds but members of the minority have since accused him of backtracking on the peace process, which has been on hold for months.

The HDP was able to draw votes beyond ethnic Kurds, finding support from secular, leftist Turks disillusioned with Erdogan’s more combative, authoritarian style of recent years. Next week, Erdogan is expected to give a mandate to the Islamist-rooted AKP to try to form a coalition government within 45 days.

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