During the 38th regular Congress of the party, Türkiye’s pro-secular founder party, the CHP (Republican People’s Party) elected a new chair: Özgür Özel. Young pharmacist (49) became the 8th leader of CHP after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1923-1938), İsmet İnönü (1938-1972), Bülent Ecevit (1972-1980), Deniz Baykal (1992-1995, 1995-1999, 2000-2010), Hikmet Çetin (1995-1995), Altan Öymen (1999-2000), and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (2010-2023). Özel commented on his victory as the “greatest honor throughout his life”.
Özel’s Surprising Victory
Although the CHP had a terrible defeat last May both in the presidential and parliamentary elections, party chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was declared the favorite candidate before the voting. This was related to the delegate system of Turkish political parties, which somehow gave a chance to the headquarters to control delegates and influence the leadership race. However, CHP delegates, after listening to both candidates’ speeches carefully and being aware of the risks that the party will face in the approaching local elections in March 2024 in case Kılıçdaroğlu continued to lead the party, decided to choose Özel. Özel took 682 votes in the first round against Kılıçdaroğlu’s 664 votes. In the second round, Özel increased his support by 130 votes and reached 812 while Kılıçdaroğlu stayed behind with only 536 votes. Although the Congress in general was peaceful and democratic, Özel’s speech before the first round of voting was interrupted by disorder and fights. The overcrowded Congress was nostalgic for those who remember the old and glorious CHP days as the Kemalist/social democratic party is known in Turkish Politics as the “party of Congresses”.
Özgür Özel’s speech during the Congress was oriented toward delegates. Özel criticized the Kılıçdaroğlu administration, especially for its close ties with right-wing groups/parties and the lack of financial support given by the headquarters. He promised more financial support for party branches and he underlined his hardworking personality. Moreover, Özel promised to change the party charter in the coming weeks and make it more democratic. Kılıçdaroğlu on the other hand criticized his young opponent for being disloyal and used the rhetoric of stabbing in the back (sırtından hançerlemek). Özel responded to these claims harshly and rejected Kılıçdaroğlu’s accusations.
Who is Özgür Özel?
Özgür Özel was born in 1974 in Manisa. He graduated from Bornova Anadolu Lisesi (BAL), a famous state college in Izmir. He later started to have a university education in the department of Pharmacology at Ege (Aegean) University in Izmir. As a young Turkish citizen raised in Izmir, Türkiye’s third biggest city known for its strong secular and Kemalist tradition, he became involved in social democratic circles and began to support the CHP. Özel finished Ege University’s Pharmacology department in 1997 and began to work as a pharmacist independently. He became CHP’s Mayor candidate in Manisa in 2009, during Deniz Baykal’s leadership, but eventually lost the election. In 2011, he was elected CHP’s Manisa deputy for the first time. In 2014, he took his chance to become Manisa Mayor once again but was defeated. He was elected CHP’s Manisa deputy in the 2015 June, 2015 November, 2018, and 2023 parliamentary elections. He became a member of the party administration in 2014 first time. In 2015, he was elected deputy chairman of the parliamentary group of CHP. Özel drew attention seriously first time in 2014 when he warned the public and authorities about the difficult and dangerous working conditions at Soma Coal Mine in Manisa. A few weeks after his warning, a terrible disaster in the Soma Coal Mine caused the death of 301 coal miners and showed the miserable condition of Türkiye in terms of labor safety. Özel continued to appear on TV channels with his heated speeches and rational criticism of the government and achieved considerable support among the party members and supporters. Father of a child, Özel is fluent in German and English languages.
What to expect from CHP in the 2024 Local Elections?
With Özgür Özel becoming the new party chair, the CHP might have more chances in the March 2024 local elections. That is because Türkiye’s economic performance has been terrible in recent months due to hyperinflation and devaluation of the Turkish lira which makes life unbearable for all working people. In that case, a new and young leader with fresh names around him, could attract more people and motivate unhappy but desperate voters to go to the ballots. In that sense, the party’s star Mayors including Ekrem İmamoğlu of İstanbul and Mansur Yavaş of Ankara could keep their seats in the two most important metropolitan cities. Moreover, with Tunç Soyer, the CHP’s chance in İzmir, the third biggest metropolitan city in the country, is also very high. That is why, Özgür Özel could make a very good start to his leadership period with three over three wins in addition to several wins, especially in coastal cities where the secular opposition is still very strong.
Ekrem İmamoğlu and Özgür Özel could restructure CHP to lead the country after long years
Özgür Özel would definitely need the support of other oppositional parties; primarily Meral Akşener’s Good Party (İYİ Parti), a secular nationalist right-wing populist political party as well as the HEDEP, the new name of the pro-Kurdish left-wing political party. The biggest difficulty the CHP has experienced in the last years has been to keep these two groups together within the opposition bloc. Özel, as a young politician coming from the left-wing political tradition, can keep these two large parties (each has around 10 % support) within the People’s Alliance (Millet İttifakı) bloc with clever tactics as Kılıçdaroğlu did. The popularity of Ekrem İmamoğlu is another chance for the opposition bloc. However, in case these two parties could not be convinced, the CHP might not win the local election in İstanbul and maybe in Ankara as well. On the other hand, after winning the local election in the economic capital of the country in March 2024, İmamoğlu could become the ideal Presidential candidate for the 2028 elections.
Finally, after 13 years of leadership, I think it was timely for Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to give up leadership right after the lost elections in May. However, he insisted on staying in power and eventually, he lost the election in his party’s Congress as well and made an unpleasant farewell to active politics. Although he was a peaceful and bright politician, Kılıçdaroğlu’s biggest disadvantage was coming across a period during which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dominated the political scene in Türkiye with his support coming from rural areas, Islamist masses, as well as the international Islamist movement. I think if Erdoğan continues to stay in active politics, the same thing might happen to Özel and İmamoğlu as well. However, according to the current constitution, Erdoğan’s tenure in office will end in 2028, which is the greatest chance for the opposition. In case Erdoğan continues to active politics or find a strong successor, however, the Turkish political system might evolve into a hegemonic party system similar to the system in Japan, with AK Parti continuing the lead the country without any breaks. We will closely monitor developments in Turkish Politics to inform our international audience.
Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ