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Turkey’s main opposition party has ousted its longtime leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu following his comprehensive loss against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a presidential election earlier this year.
Members of the Republican People’s party (CHP) voted early on Sunday to replace Kılıçdaroğlu with Özgür Özel, a veteran lawmaker who vowed to shake up the organisation’s strategy ahead of local elections scheduled for March next year.
The decision marks the most significant shift in power in Turkey’s opposition since Kılıçdaroğlu became CHP leader in 2010.
“I have been proposing a bold and determined policy against the embarrassing and passive politics pursued by our party for a while,” Özel said as the CHP party congress got under way in Ankara on Saturday.
The first round of the vote for party chair was inconclusive, with neither Kılıçdaroğlu nor Özel, the favourites in the race, garnering a majority of votes among the more than 1,300 party delegates who took part in the poll. Özel clinched a majority with 812 votes in the second round, which stretched into the early hours of Sunday.
The vote for party chair will set the stage for how the CHP, the secularist party of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, will prepare for next year’s municipal elections. It comes a time when many analysts warn Erdoğan is sliding towards autocracy.
Kılıçdaroğlu led a six-party coalition in the May 2023 presidential vote, which was seen as the opposition’s best shot in years at unseating Erdoğan after two decades in power.
His loss, after an unprecedented run-off, prompted widespread frustration among opposition members, some of whom have questioned whether the soft-spoken 74-year-old was the right candidate to challenge Erdoğan, who is known for his fiery rhetoric.
Some party insiders have also said that Kılıçdaroğlu made too many concessions to smaller political groups that joined the six-party opposition alliance, while others have complained that he delegated party management to a small group of senior officials and consultants rather than seeking counsel from a broader group of stakeholders.
Erdoğan has said his Justice and Development party (AKP) will fight vigorously to win back control of Turkey’s two biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, the capital, in next year’s local races. The AKP lost control of both mayoral seats in 2019 as Turkey’s rolling economic crises dented confidence in the ruling party.
Özel, a 49-year-old former pharmacist, is a longtime party grandee and had been seen as an ally of Kılıçdaroğlu. He is now calling for reform both in how the party is managed and how it approaches the upcoming elections, vowing on Saturday to take an inclusive approach.
“I promise a policy that will touch Kurdish, Türke, Alevi, Sunniye, rightwing, leftist, poor and precarious workers,” he said.
Additional reporting by Funja Güler in Ankara