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In Turkey, a rising leader is an alternative for voters and challenge to Erdogan

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:

Now a look at the low-key politician taking on Turkey's powerful president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For 20 years, Erdogan has amassed power over the government, courts and media. Now several parties that don't agree on much else have joined to back a challenger in next month's elections. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Kemal Kilicdaroglu doesn't have a flashy political presence. He's a former accountant who once headed Turkey's social security bureaucracy before becoming a member of parliament and joining and eventually taking charge of Turkey's main secular party. But he's about to take on the country's dominant politician. Here's Kilicdaroglu speaking several weeks ago, after the earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people in southern Turkey. Addressing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he said the government had cut corners in earthquake preparedness.

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KEMAL KILICDAROGLU: (Through interpreter) And they took these risks knowing what the consequences would be. The death toll is big not just because of the magnitude of the quake but because of the failure to protect buildings and people from the quake. Erdogan, I will be fighting you till the end.

KENYON: From time to time, the measured 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu who does take the rhetoric up a notch. This comment from an appearance last fall dares Erdogan to debate and refers to Kasimpasa, a tough Istanbul neighborhood where Erdogan grew up.

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KILICDAROGLU: (Through interpreter) I say if you're a bully from Kasimpasa, you come and face me. You have the state behind you. Come with your consultants and your teleprompter. You ask me a hundred questions. I'll ask you three questions or one question. But no, he wouldn't come. He wouldn't have the courage. I know this well.

KENYON: For his part, Erdogan has dismissed Kilicdaroglu as unqualified to lead and says the loosely based opposition coalition backing him, quote, "cannot rule Turkey." But on the street, people seem intrigued by the matchup. Sixty-four-year-old Alaattin Erim says he's a retired Istanbul resident who will be voting for Kilicdaroglu next month, in part because his economic background may help him fix Turkey's economy, which has Turkish families struggling to cope with hyperinflation. Erim also says Kilicdaroglu strikes him as an honest politician. He compares him to a popular former prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, of whom it was said he kept Turkey's reputation as, quote, "the world's most secular Muslim country." Erim believes Kilicdaroglu is cut from the same cloth.

ALAATTIN ERIM: (Through interpreter) He is a trustworthy person, as honest as Ecevit. This is where he belongs, nobody else.

KENYON: One concern is whether Erdogan's government will let the election be fair. Erim says he has his doubts.

ERIM: (Through interpreter) I do have worries about the election, yes, because these people were never honest about it before. They may try to cheat again, but they won't be able to get enough votes.

KENYON: Meral Cildir sits on the board of directors of the Turkish Association for Human Rights. She says one of the most attractive things about Kilicdaroglu to many is the prospect that checks and balances will be restored and human rights will be respected.

MERAL CILDIR: (Through interpreter) There are thousands of jailed people. We support the opposition because these people will need to be released. Or if there are verdicts against them, they will need new, fair trials. Surely, the change back to a parliamentary system will be the first step toward restoring our democracy. Otherwise, it won't be any different from the government we got now. So we have hope.

KENYON: Turkey has seen two decades of Erdogan in power, first as prime minister and then as president. Twenty-four-year-old student Ibrahim Iper says people want new leadership.

IBRAHIM IPER: We want to change because we are young. Young people want to change this position - for economical or political, we don't like it.

KENYON: He says if Kilicdaroglu wins, he'll have four huge tasks ahead of him - to restore Turkey's democracy, make sure it has an independent judiciary, get the economy back on track and shore up Turkey's education sector. Some Kilicdaroglu supporters worry that he isn't charismatic enough to outshine Erdogan on the campaign trail. But analyst Soli Ozel, a lecturer at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, says Kilicdaroglu has already demonstrated that he can get results by convincing a fractious coalition of six opposition parties that he's the one who can drive Erdogan from office.

SOLI OZEL: In a month, we will go to the elections, and Mr. Kilicdaroglu, who is not known for his charismatic or exciting personality but is a dogged worker, if you will - he proposes to Turkey a calmer future and promises to eradicate corruption and also to seek accountability. I suppose this also implies that he will bring some people to justice if the evidence is very strong about embezzlement and other corrupt activities.

KENYON: In just a few weeks, Kemal Kilicdaroglu will find out if he has the support he needs to finally defeat Erdogan and the ruling party that has dominated Turkish politics for so long. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.