Turkey’s main opposition party on Sunday dumped its embattled leader in favour of an untested former pharmacist following a disappointing election defeat to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The staunchly secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been riven by divisions since Kemal Kilicdaroglu lost a bitterly fought May runoff against Turkey’s dominant but divisive president.
At the party’s annual congress, delegates voted to replace Kilicdaroglu with the relatively unknown Ozgur Ozel after squandering what many viewed as the opposition’s best chance to end two decades of Erdogan’s Islamic conservative rule.
The May election came in the throes of a dire cost-of-living crisis that analysts blame squarely on Erdogan’s unorthodox economic beliefs.
Kilicdaroglu managed to pull together a multi-faceted alliance that included both right-wing nationalists and left-wing socialists and Kurds.
But the six-party bloc nearly fractured months before the election and then underperformed in the polls.
Erdogan managed to cement his control of parliament through support from Islamic and ultranationalist groups.
Kilicdaroglu then riled many within his own party by refusing to concede defeat and quit.
The 74-year-old lost his leadership post after two rounds of heated party congress voting to a candidate backed by Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu.
Ozel had spent a large part of his career working as a private pharmacist in the socially liberal Aegean resort city of Izmir.
He eventually became head of Turkey’s pharmacy association and was elected to parliament in 2011.
The bespectacled 49-year-old German speaker won the final ballot by a 812-536 margin after promoting himself as the candidate for “change”.
But the vote was far more focused on personalities than any particular policies.
Kilicdaroglu compared attempts to unseat him to a “stab in the back”.
Ozel countered that he wanted to “write a new story and reshape Turkish politics”.
– Focus on March polls –
The CHP congress came with much of the political attention turning to March municipal elections that Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) enter with a full head of steam.
Erdogan had long prided himself on never losing a national election and keeping his conservative alliance in control of both parliament and Turkey’s main cities.
But his air of invincibility was punctured in landmark 2019 elections that saw the opposition win both Istanbul and Ankara for the first time during Erdogan’s rule.
Erdogan has been focused on seizing back both cities since his re-election to a final five-year term.
Analysts believe Erdogan’s chances are strongest in Istanbul — the city where the Turkish leader grew up and where he launched his political career as mayor.
Current mayor Imamoglu became a darling of the opposition after winning a hugely controversial re-run election against Erdogan’s ally in 2019.
But he has since lost some of his lustre and is currently facing the threat of being barred from politics by Turkish courts.
Imamoglu has been convicted of insulting a public official and could be forced to resign should the ruling be upheld.
He decided against challenging Kilicdaroglu and instead backed Ozel’s candidacy.