ANKARA, Nov 4 (Reuters) – Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) on Sunday elected Ozgur Ozel as its new leader, ending a 13-year term for incumbent Kemal Kilicdaroglu, as the country gears up for local elections next March.
Ozel, 49, has been serving as the CHP’s deputy parliamentary group chairman since 2015 and has been a lawmaker since 2011. He announced his candidacy in September, after Kilicdaroglu and the CHP’s painful defeat to President Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling political alliance in May presidential and general elections.
Ozel, a pharmacist by trade, received 812 of 1,366 possible votes at a tense, hours-long party congress in Ankara that took two rounds.
“This is the greatest honour of my life,” Ozel said after the results were announced, while thanking Kilicdaroglu for his work at the party. “We are embarking on the road for local election victory,” he added.
“We have believed in turning hopelessness into hope, we are hopeful,” Ozel said, surrounded by applauding party members and standing alongside Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu.
Imamoglu supported Ozel in a push for change at the CHP that has long been bogged down by in-fighting. After winning the 2019 municipal elections in Istanbul and ending Erdogan’s years-long hold over the city, Imamoglu was seen as a potential new leader for the party and challenger for the presidency.
However, Kilicdaroglu chose to run himself against Erdogan in the May elections, despite several previous losses. After the vote, he came under fire for refusing to step down as the leader of the CHP, established by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
“I carried our Great Leader Ataturk’s legacy with honour until today,” Kilicdaroglu said on social messaging platform X after the results, and congratulated Ozel. “And today, with the decision our congress delegates made, I say goodbye to the post of chairman.”
Under his 13-year term, the CHP failed to surpass a historic ceiling of 25% nationwide support. On Sunday, Kilicdaroglu opted to take the vote to a second round after Ozel failed to secure a majority in the first round, despite calls from party members to withdraw from the race.
Analysts say Kilicdaroglu’s refusal to step down or withdraw from the race had hurt his legacy. Ozer Sencar, head of pollster Metropoll, said on X that Ozel’s victory could alter the trend of depoliticisation in Turkey following the May elections.
“The Ozel-Imamoglu union could be a very important turning point in the country’s politics,” Sencar said.
Speaking in the Black Sea province of Rize later on Sunday, Erdogan repeated his allegation that the CHP was associated with terrorist organisations, which the CHP denies.
“One is no better than the other. They are no different than each other,” Erdogan said of Ozel and Kilicdaroglu. “They walked shoulder to shoulder with terrorist organisation,” he added.
“You lost 12-13 elections, you were always with them (terror groups). The one who won, you were also with them.”
Erdogan has previously accused the CHP of siding with terror groups, without providing evidence, saying the support provided by the pro-Kurdish opposition for the CHP, as well as the CHP’s criticism of the arrests of prominent politicians, journalists, and philanthropists was a sign of this.
Ozel will now lead the CHP into local elections on March 31, where the party hopes to keep hold of the key municipalities it won in 2019, including the capital Ankara, Turkey’s biggest city Istanbul, and other major cities.
Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Birsen Altayli; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Hugh Lawson and David Evans
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