Manisa MP Özgür Özel is the new leader of Turkiye’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP). The 49-year-old former pharmacist beat Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in a leadership contest, bringing the incumbent’s 13-year term as CHP Leader to a close.
The result means CHP goes into the nationwide local elections, which are just four months away on 31 March 2024, buoyed by a new leader.
Kılıçdaroğlu, 74, was soundly beaten by his younger opponent over two rounds of voting at the party’s Annual Congress in Ankara on Sunday, with Özel receiving 812 of 1,366 possible votes in the run-off.
“This is the greatest honour of my life,” Özel told party members after the results were announced. He thanked Kılıçdaroğlu, who had been CHP leader since May 2010, for his long years of service to the party, before turning to matters in the near future.
“We are embarking on the road for local election victory…We have believed in turning hopelessness into hope, we are hopeful.”
The result was warmly welcomed by many, including popular Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, who had backed Özel’s candidacy.
Kurultay divan başkanlığı görevimi bugün itibariyle tamamladım. Ardından da Sayın Genel Başkanımız Özgür Özel ile buluştuk. Bu süreçte özveriyle görev yapan Kurultay Başkanlık Kurulu’ndaki arkadaşlarımıza, hukukçularımıza, delegelerimize ve tüm örgütümüze şükranlarımı sunarım. pic.twitter.com/9gqUdup5oj
— Ekrem İmamoğlu (@ekrem_imamoglu) November 6, 2023
There had been growing discontent across the CHP membership after Kılıçdaroğlu had refused to stand down following his double defeat in May, losing to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in both the Presidential and General Elections.
During Kılıçdaroğlu’s term as leader, CHP has repeatedly failed to garner more than 25% of the national vote at a general election, allowing Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to dominate Turkish politics.
At the start of the year, AKP’s standing in the polls had fallen to its lowest levels since winning power in November 2002, with most Turks holding Erdoğan and his government responsible for the country’s many serious economic, social and political problems, which were further exacerbated by the devastating twin earthquakes that struck the country on 6 February.
Despite this, Kılıçdaroğlu was unable to capitalise on AKP’s woes. Instead, after May, he found himself without a Parliamentary seat as election rules in Turkiye prevented him from running for both Turkiye’s Parliament and the Presidency.
His successor takes on the tall task of challenging the omnipotent Erdoğan, who has entered his third decade at the helm of Turkish politics, and who didn’t hesitate to smear Özel after learning he was the new CHP leader.
“One is no better than the other. They [Özel and Kılıçdaroğlu] are no different than each other,” the Turkish President stated, adding “They walked shoulder to shoulder with a terrorist organisation,” in reference to CHP’s co-operation with pro-Kurdish political parties.
Who is Özgür Özel?
Özel was born in Manisa, western Turkiye, on 21 September 1974 to parents who are now both retired teachers.
He graduated from Ege University with a degree in pharmacy in 1997 and worked as a pharmacist until becoming an MP in 2011.
He is married to Didem Özel, also a pharmacist, and the couple have one daughter.
As a pharmacist, Özel joined his local professional association, the Manisa Chamber of Pharmacists, where he served one term as General Secretary and two terms as President of the Chamber. During the same period, he also became a spokesperson and later president of the Manisa Academic Chambers Union.
A few years before entering politics, Özel was also elected to the Central Board of Directors of the Turkish Pharmacists’ Association, where he was Treasurer for one term and held the position of General Secretary for two terms but resigned early, in March 2011, in order to stand as an MP in the General Elections that same year.
These diverse roles within the world of pharmacy gave Özel an opportunity to interact with his national and international peers as he attended dozens of overseas congresses and conferences, including the International Pharmaceutical Federation, the European Union Pharmaceutical Group, and the European Pharmaceutical Forum, as a delegate, and to present papers and speak on panels.
Özel started to get more politically active around 2007. He helped organise the Manisa Republican Rally against Erdoğan’s AKP government that year, before joining CHP two years later in 2009.
He stood as the CHP candidate for Mayor of Manisa in the local elections but was unsuccessful.
As an active CHP member, he became a delegate for the CHP Manisa Provincial Organisation during the 33rd Regular CHP Congress and again at the 15th Extraordinary Congress.
Özel was elected as a Member of Parliament for Manisa in the 2011 General Elections and has been re-elected four times since then.
In 2015, he was selected as CHP Parliamentary Group Deputy Chair, a post he held until June 2023, when he was promoted to CHP Group Chair.
During his 12 years in the Turkish Grand Assembly, Özel has sat on a number of Parliamentary committees, including those for Health, Family, Employment, and Social Affairs. He was also on the Committee Investigating the 2014 Soma Mining Disaster in Manisa.
Özel’s strong criticism of AKP and the mine owners over their poor health and safety records and response to the Soma Mining Disaster, which claimed 301 lives, garnered him major national public attention.
His interest in justice, society and education, has also seen him sit on the CHP Committee for Monitoring and Examining Prisons and the Committee for Researching the Problems of Universities and Students.
He announced his decision to stand against Kılıçdaroğlu in September of this year and was elected as leader of the party at CHP’s 38th Regular Congress.
Özel becomes the eighth leader of the CHP, following in the footsteps of the party’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Leader from 1923 to his death in 1938), and Bülent Ecevit, who headed the party from 1972 to the military coup of 1980, when CHP was closed down.