Turkey's new opposition leader faces the greatest test of his political life

At 49, Ozgur Ozel is the youngest head of the party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, but can he energise the CHP faithful ahead of critical local elections next March?

Ozgur Ozel, the new leader of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP. Mr Ozel won on a second-round vote – the first in the 100-year history of the party. EPA
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Few would describe Kemal Kilicdaroglu as a charismatic leader or brilliant tactician. But over 13 years as head of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), he built a reputation as a decent man — dogged, soft-spoken and relatively open-minded. So why did he throw all that away in his last days in the post?

The troubles began in March, when the 74-year-old Mr Kilicdaroglu tapped himself as the six-party opposition alliance’s presidential candidate for the May vote despite polls pegging him as the fourth-most popular opposition politician, behind the Ankara and Istanbul mayors and head of the nationalist IYI Party. He had never before run head-to-head against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, yet after some grumbling the CHP approved his candidacy.

Following a surprise defeat in the first round, Mr Kilicdaroglu embraced a darker tone, parroting hoary xenophobic rhetoric and the inflated refugee numbers of far-right nationalists. He came off as desperate, as I wrote at the time, and the end of an era loomed.

Mr Kilicdaroglu saved his worst for last. After losing again to Mr Erdogan, he went into hiding and took no responsibility for the stunning defeat. Was he penning a mea culpa or just too embarrassed to shoulder the blame? Amid calls for his resignation, his radio silence continued.

Then, in late July, a leaked video revealed that Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, long seen as the CHP’s rising star, had been holding secret meetings to plot Mr Kilicdaroglu’s ouster. The writing was on the wall — and last week the CHP finally dumped Mr Kilicdaroglu and chose Ozgur Ozel, a close ally of Mr Imamoglu, to lead the party.

Under Turkish law, party members elect neighbourhood delegates, who then elect district delegates, who in turn elect provincial delegates, who finally vote for the party leader. The system strongly favours incumbents, who are able to hand-pick the neighborhood delegates and secure votes by promising plum posts.

If in the first vote at a party congress no candidate gets a majority, it goes to a second round. Mr Ozel won the CHP’s first round of voting by just 20 votes out of more than 1,350, falling short of a majority. In the second-round vote — the first in the 100-year history of the party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — Mr Ozel won handily and Mr Kilicdaroglu’s fate was sealed.

Under his leadership, the CHP lost 10 consecutive national votes. His high-water mark was the 2019 local elections, when opposition mayors won in Istanbul, Ankara, Adana and other major cities. Now it will be up to Mr Ozel, an MP for Manisa province since 2011, to hold on to those cities in Turkey’s local elections next March. “This is the greatest honour of my life,” he said at the CHP Congress. “We believe in turning hopelessness into hope.”

If the CHP were to now lose its last few remaining positions of power, particularly the mayorships of Istanbul and Ankara, the party could slide into irrelevance

A longtime pharmacist, Mr Ozel is best known for speaking out after a devastating 2014 mine collapse in Soma, Manisa, killed more than 300 miners. While government leaders came off as indifferent to local suffering, Mr Ozel gave a speech in which he explained that, just 20 days before the disaster, the AKP-led parliament had voted down his proposal to review the safety of Manisa mines.

Mr Ozel is the third consecutive CHP leader to be elected on a promise of change, and at 49 years old, the youngest. He speaks English and German, and has vowed to make Mr Imamoglu the party’s presidential candidate in 2028. Of course, he has much more pressing matters to handle first, and has thus far responded aggressively to his first crisis as CHP chief.

Turkey’s top appeals court last week rejected the Constitutional Court’s decision to release Can Atalay, an MP for a left-wing party, from prison. The appeals court also called for a criminal probe against the Constitutional Court justices. Mr Erdogan has said that even the Constitutional Court must be corrected when it makes mistakes, while critics have asserted that if the appeals court’s decision stands, it would undermine the judiciary and further consolidate the power of the presidency.

Mr Kilicdaroglu generally avoided confrontation, but Mr Ozel described the appeals court’s move as a judicial “coup attempt” and led a protest march last Friday. His firm stand could give the opposition, which has seemed lost since its May defeats, a jolt of energy as campaigns begin for the March vote.

In addition, Mr Ozel decided to mimic the UK’s opposition and at the weekend selected a CHP shadow cabinet, the first in Turkey’s history. The choices clearly underscore a youth movement and a new generation taking control of the opposition.

For as long as a decade, observers have been describing Turkey’s next election as perhaps its most important. That label was surely hyperbole on more than one occasion, but this time around it seems apt.

Amid a years-long economic crisis that has crushed the lira, driven countless Turks into poverty and spurred a steadily increasing brain drain — 77,000 left Turkey in 2020; 103,000 in 2021; 140,000 in 2022 — the AKP found a way to reassert its dominance earlier this year.

If the CHP were to now lose its last few remaining positions of power, particularly the mayorships of Istanbul and Ankara, the party of Ataturk could slide into irrelevance, clearing the way for the AKP's already unprecedented reign to extend long into the future.

Perhaps the pressure on Mr Kilicdaroglu’s shoulders had become too much, and ultimately led to his unravelling. Whatever the case, that great weight now passes to Mr Ozel. With local elections just months away, he has just begun the greatest test of his political life.

Published: November 14, 2023, 4:00 AM