Many thought that the decision to move the elections forward by over 16 months was a pre-emptive move by Erdoğan to avoid the damage an increasingly volatile Turkish economy is likely to inflict on his popular support. Both inflation and unemployment are over 10 percent and on the rise, the budget deficit saw a 58 percent increase in the past year, and the lira has lost more than 20 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar this year alone. (The dollar-to-lira rate is now 4.6 to 1; it was 3.75 to 1 in January, and around 2 to 1 as recently as mid-2013.) Nor is the Turkish government able to stem the tide: To the contrary, Erdoğan’s frequent and ideologically charged declarations against high interest rates as well as his recent promise to intervene more directly in the policymaking of Turkey’s Central Bank after the elections are increasingly perceived as contributing to the lira’s plunge.
Amid these economic worries, Erdoğan also faces the most diverse and rigorous pool of opposition candidates since he came to power in 2003. A new electoral alliance hoping to unseat Erdoğan includes not only the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the new center-right İyi (Good) Party, but also an Islamist faction, represented by the small yet influential Felicity Party—ironically, Erdoğan’s own political home during his rise to political stardom in the 1990s.
The allied opposition parties have each fielded their own candidates, but promise to unite behind whichever candidate makes it to a run-off against Erdoğan. The CHP’s presidential candidate is Muharrem İnce, a fiery orator who was once known for his staunch secularism and perceived as insensitive to the needs of Turkey’s pious Muslims and large Kurdish minority. Recently, however, he has struck a remarkably conciliatory tone on the campaign trail, adopting a narrative embracing Turkey’s ethnic and social diversity, promoting teaching Kurdish in government schools, and declaring that he has no intention to resurrect Turkey’s once-infamous headscarf ban. İyi Party leader Meral Akşener, the only woman in the race, is the first serious right-wing challenger to Erdoğan in over a decade.
Finally, the conservative Felicity Party candidate, the British-educated party head Temel Karamollaoğlu, is easing into his role as an elder statesman and is dishing out intense moral criticism of the ruling AKP. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP)—which the government has heavily stigmatized—was left outside of the opposition alliance, but its party head and candidate Selahattin Demirtaş remains a charismatic leader for much of Turkey’s Kurds and secular youth. This diversity of options available to Turks of all political and ideological persuasions means that Erdoğan is now challenged from multiple sides and that there is likely to be increased opposition turnout at the polls.