Turkish opposition leader of 13 years ousted, Ozgur Ozel takes helm

Turkish opposition leader of 13 years ousted, Ozgur Ozel takes helm
Ozgur Ozel, right, with Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who backed Ozel after deciding not to run for the party leadership himself. / SÖZCÜ Televizyonu, screenshot
By bne IntelIiNews November 5, 2023

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party for 13 years who was unsuccessful in his May election attempt to dislodge Turkish president of two decades Recep Tayyip Erdogan despite big hopes amid the country’s economic crisis, was on November 5 ousted in favour of veteran lawmaker Ozgur Ozel.

Ozel has pledged to revamp the Republican People’s Party (CHP) strategy ahead of local elections scheduled for March next year, when Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) will attempt to win back key mayorships including those of Istanbul and Ankara.

“I have been proposing a bold and determined policy against the embarrassing and passive politics pursued by our party for a while,” Ozel said as the CHP party congress commenced in Ankara on November 3.

In a first-round vote for party leader, neither Kilicdaroglu (above) nor Ozel won a majority of votes from the 1,388 party delegates who participated in the poll. In the second-round vote, which stretched into the early hours, Ozel won a majority with 812 votes.

In the spring parliamentary and presidential elections, the 74-year-old soft-spoken Kilicdaroglu led the secularist CHP at the head of a six-party coalition, but the official results showed Erdogan, a fiery orator seen as increasingly autocratic, winning relatively comfortably. That has led to deep-seated frustration in the opposition ranks and stark divisions over the best way forward, with many in the CHP believing Kilicdaroglu should have quit. Under Kilicdaroglu’s leadership, the CHP lost four parliamentary and three presidential elections.

Ozel, 49, is a longtime CHP grandee and former pharmacist who was elected to parliament in 2011, and served as party whip for Kilicdaroglu. He has called for reform in how the party is managed and in how it addresses the upcoming elections.

“I promise a policy that will touch Kurdish, Turk, Alevi, Sunniye, rightwing, leftist, poor and precarious workers,” he said, promising an inclusive approach.

Prior to losing the chairmanship of the party, Kilicdaroglu said attempts to unseat him were a "stab in the back".

Ozel responded that he desired to "write a new story and reshape Turkish politics", AFP reported.

Erdogan wasted no time in going on the attack against Ozel in the hours after his victory was announced. Bloomberg reported him as addressing supporters in the northeastern city of Rize, saying Kilicdaroglu and Ozel “aren’t different from each other”, and adding: “They both have walked side by side with terrorist organisations.” He reportedly referred to Ozel as “that person who won the congress.”

Both Kilicdaroglu and Ozel have denied any such association with terrorist organisations and the populist Erdogan tends to throw such accusations without offering any evidence.

Ozel’s bid for the leadership was backed by the CHP’s Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, who won acclaim when he defeated Erdogan’s AKP candidate in the contest for Turkey’s biggest city in the 2019 local elections.

Faced by difficulties including a conviction for insulting a public official—if the conviction is upheld at appeal, it could see him barred from public office—Imamoglu decided against challenging Kilicdaroglu.