Turkey’s opposition chooses new leader following election defeat

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Turkey’s main opposition party voted Saturday on whether to stick by its embattled leader or rally around 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 in a bitterly fought May runoff against Turkey’s longest-serving leader.

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Kilicdaroglu faced fierce criticism for squandering what many viewed as the opposition’s best chance to end two decades of Erdogan’s Islamic conservative rule.

The May vote came in the throes of a dire cost-of-living crisis that analysts blame squarely on Erdogan’s unorthodox economic beliefs.

The 74-year-old opposition leader managed to pull together a multi-faceted alliance that included both right-wing nationalists and left-wing socialists and Kurds.

But the six-party alliance almost crumbled 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 supporters by never fully conceding defeat.

He denied performing poorly and blamed the outcome on Erdogan’s “lies, fraud and immorality”.

Kilicdaroglu’s challenge Saturday comes from Ozgur Ozel, a silver-haired 49-year-old backed by Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu.

Ozel spends a large part of his career working as a private pharmacist in the socially liberal Aegean resort city of Izmir.

He eventually came to head Turkey’s pharmacy association and was elected to parliament in 2011.

The bespectacled German speaker had promoted himself as a 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”.

The results of voting by more than more than 1,000 party delegates were expected late Saturday.

March polls

Saturday’s congress comes with much of the political attention in Turkey turning to March municipal elections that Erdogan and his ruling party enter with a full head of steam.

Erdogan had long prided himself on never losing a national election and keeping his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in control of both parliament and Turkey’s main cities.

But his air of invincibility was punctured in landmark 2019 local elections that saw the opposition take control of both Istanbul and Ankara for the first-time during Erdogan’s rule.

Erdogan has been focusing on seizing back control of both cities since winning the May vote.

Analysts believe his 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 luster and is currently facing the threat of being barred from politics by Turkey’s top court.

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.

Ozel’s support at the congress is expected to come mostly from large cities such as Istanbul.

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