ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s main opposition party voted for fresh leadership in the early hours of Sunday, five months after a devastating election defeat that saw President Recep Tayyip Erdogan extend his two-decade rule.
Ozgur Ozel replaced Kemal Kilicdaroglu after delegates of the Republican People’s Party, or the CHP, elected him as new leader. The results in a second round of voting — held in a sports hall in Ankara — saw Ozel take 812 of 1,366 delegate votes to become the CHP’s 8th leader.
Speaking from the stage in front of thousands of flag-waving CHP members, Ozel — his voice hoarse with excitement — promised the cheering crowd a brighter political future and “to make people smile.”
Dissent spread among members of the CHP after the party failed to capitalize on dire economic circumstances in Turkey and the fallout from February’s earthquakes to oust Erdogan in parliamentary and presidential elections in May. At the time, pre-election polls had predicted a strong showing for the CHP’s former leader Kilicdaroglu in what many saw as the opposition’s greatest chance to unseat Erdogan since he took office in 2003.
But Erdogan secured his third presidential term in a run-off vote.
Ozel said in his winning speech Sunday that he would mobilize the party immediately to “compensate for the great sadness” of May’s election defeat.
Kilicdaroglu, 74, had led the party since 2010, and ever since, the CHP failed to win a single national election although it scored significant victories in local elections in 2019, taking a handful of major cities — including Ankara and Istanbul.
The former party head was criticized for not standing down after losing May’s election.
A call for change at the top of the CHP was led by Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, one of the party’s most prominent figures and an outspoken critic of the way the party ran May’s election campaign.
Others also complained that the secularist CHP — established by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — had become undemocratic, with too much power in the leader’s hands.
Ozel, 49, is a former pharmacist who was elected to parliament in 2011. He will lead the party in local elections in March in a bid to hold onto the cities it took five years earlier.
“We will not stop, we will work, we will work shoulder to shoulder, we will regain all the municipalities we (currently) have, we will add new ones and together we will win a great victory,” Ozel said.