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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.
Bulent Ecevit headed a left-nationalist party that rivaled the CHP he had once led. The failure of the two parties to unite weakened the left and contributed to the disastrous showing of traditional secular parties in the 2002 election that first swept AK to power on promises to root out corruption.
The new 80-member party assembly approved by the CHP delegates on Sunday includes few of the old, conservative members.
Hardcore secularists including the party spokesman Mustafa Ozyurek, who had insisted on keeping Baykal as leader, and deputy chairman Onur Oymen, representing a strongly nationalist wing opposed to political and economic reform, were left out.
Alongside many younger and less-known figures, the new party assembly includes Umut Oran, a reform-minded businessman, and the CHP Istanbul organization's chairman Gursel Tekin, who lured many poor voters to the CHP in last year's mayoral elections.
"I respected a certain balance when I prepared the list. We are looking for ways to bring the CHP to power," Kilicdaroglu told reporters in a bid to assuage the senior CHP members who were left out of the party assembly.
In a sign of continuity with the past leadership, the party's second most powerful man and its secretary general, Onder Sav retained his seat in the party assembly.
Kilicdaroglu, who was the only candidate in Saturday's election, has forced the resignation of senior AK Party rulers by exposing several corruption files. He ran for the office of Istanbul mayor last year and raised the CHP vote significantly.
An opinion poll published this week suggested Kilicdaroglu would prop up the CHP votes above 30 percent. The party won 21 percent in the latest national election.
"The CHP is passing through a tremendous change. A new leadership is emerging and there is a lot of excitement because of new faces and a new leader," said Hursit Gunes, a newly-elected party assembly member.
Established by Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, the CHP under 71-year old Baykal had blocked many EU-driven reforms and was accused of being out of touch with a rapidly changing country.
Baykal, who quit this month after the release of an Internet video allegedly showing him and a female colleague semi-clothed in a bedroom, did not run again in Saturday's election. Baykal said he was the victim of a government conspiracy.
AK Party deputy chairman Huseyin Celik said his party was untroubled by Kilicdaroglu's election.
"Everybody will get what they deserve at the election."