New Turkish secularist party leader sacks old guard

Sun May 23, 2010 2:26pm EDT
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By Selcuk Gokoluk

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's new opposition leader purged key hardline secularists and set a tentative reformist course on Sunday in a bid to regain ground lost to an AK Party government critics accuse of secretly pursuing an Islamic state.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a 62-year former civil servant, was elected chairman on Saturday following the resignation of veteran party leader Deniz Baykal over a sex tape scandal. The CHP delegates elected the new party assembly on Sunday.

While courting the more militant secularist elite, the CHP has lost support among urban, middle-class voters by firmly resisting AK's European Union-inspired reform steps to pare back army influence and liberalize the economy.

The AK Party, encroaching also on CHP's electorate among the poor, won a huge parliamentary majority in a 2007 election and is tipped to win the next vote in 2011. The CHP has vigorously opposed moves by AK, which denies Islamist ambitions, to reform a constitution born of a 1980 military coup.

Kilicdaroglu may be hard pressed to match the personal popularity of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan by the time elections are due in July 2011.

Analysts said a less statist CHP that re-established its social democratic credentials and shunned the nationalism of the Baykal era, would nonetheless have a better chance at next year's parliamentary elections.

"(Kilicdaroglu) proved that a new era has begun in Turkey, that the government is not without an alternative and the left can unify," said Vatan newspaper commentator Mustafa Mutlu.

Several prominent social democrats including Rahsan Ecevit, widow of the late prime minister Bulent Ecevit, voiced support for Kilicdaroglu and called on voters to back him. The call had some symbolic power.   Continued...