Turkey swore in its new Parliament Saturday. In elections last month, the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party achieved a landslide victory, prompting some analysts to voice concern about Turkey's future as a secular state. But many eyes today were on 21 newly elected Kurdish deputies, the first pro-Kurdish representation in parliament in more than a decade. From Turkey's capital, Ankara, Dorian Jones has more on the first day of Turkey's new parliament.
The oldest member of parliament, Sukru Elekdag, of the secular People's Republican Party, was given the traditional honor of chairing the opening session. In his address to the newly elected deputies, he appealed for unity by directly quoting the words of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the ruling Justice and Development party. He said "We have common values and goals that unite us." quoting a statement by the prime minister after his party's recent victory. He continued with the rest of Mr. Erdogan's remark: "We will improve our republic which is a democratic, secular, social state of law, and we will never make concessions on these values."
Political analysts say Elekdag was sending a message to Mr. Erdogan about his expected nomination of a presidential candidate. Parliament will elect the new president this month.
In April, Mr. Erdogan sparked the country's worst political crisis in years by naming Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as his presidential candidate. Gul, a devout Muslim, is accused by secularists of seeking to undermine the secular state, a charge he denies. The crisis over his candidacy led to last month's early election.
Mr. Erdogan is facing calls from opposition parties to choose a consensus candidate, but having won a landslide victory at the polls, he faces pressure from his own party to support Gul again.
But as the 550 deputies took their oaths of office, Turkey's secular status was not the only issue facing them. Attention was focused on 21 newly elected Kurdish deputies.
Their swearing-in Saturday marks the first time the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party is represented in parliament in more than a decade. In 1991, five Kurdish deputies provoked an uproar when one of them took the oath in Kurdish. Within two years they were expelled from parliament and jailed for a decade. But this time there were no provocative gestures.
Pro-Kurdish deputy Gultan Kisanak says they are not looking for confrontation. She says the party's presence as well as its politics are going to be for the benefit of the country, for people to see better days and for peace.
Some analysts say Kurdish representation can open the way to a peaceful resolution of the 20-year conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish fighters of the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party who have been fighting for autonomy. In the last 18 months, there has been a resurgence in fighting between Turkish forces and the PKK in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country. Since 1984, more than 30-thousand people have been killed in the conflict.
The new Kurdish deputies are under intense scrutiny amid accusations they are a political front for the PKK. Gunduz Aktan is a deputy for the far-right National Action Party. "Well, it depends on their behavior, whether or not they will denounce PKK terrorism that is essential, otherwise you know they will lose their legitimacy," he said.
The Kurdish deputies have consistently resisted calls to denounce the PKK, saying such pressure is unhelpful in finding a peaceful solution.