The greatest mistake of Muharrem İnce’s political career was complete just after 00.37am.
It was already clear at that moment, early in the morning of Monday 25 June 2018, that he had failed in his unspoken ambition to force a second round of the Turkish presidential election.
The results showed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would triumph outright with a slim majority of the votes.
But millions of people had voted for Mr İnce and for them, there was reason to believe this was not true.
While Mr Erdoğan’s side proclaimed victory, the CHP was telling its supporters that the results published by the government were wrong, that a second round was a certainty, and that ballot box observers should remain at their posts.
This was when Mr İnce received a short WhatsApp message from Fox TV presenter İsmail Küçükkaya: “What do you say?”
He replied with just two words: adam kazandı (“the man won”).
Mr Küçükkaya read out that short message on live television a few minutes later. It was the only time that night that the public would hear from the Turkish main opposition party’s candidate for president.
For Mr İnce, it was a terrible error not to make a single appearance that night.
Sure, he held a press conference early the following morning. He said that he accepted the outcome. He pointed out he was the first left-wing leader since Bülent Ecevit to win more than 30 percent in a national election. He made much of his magnanimity: “If, as you enter a race, you cannot congratulate your opponent, you should not enter that race.”
But he was plainly saying things he should have said the night before.
He had not understood that he was more than just a name on a ballot paper; he was the leader of the single largest anti-Erdoğan movement. It should have been him appearing on live television to voice everything the CHP was saying over social media.
But his actions that night contrasted sharply with those of the CHP candidate for Mayor of Istanbul in local elections just nine months later.
Ekrem İmamoğlu’s crisis management on the night of 31 March 2019 — his clear messaging and confident tone during multiple live broadcasts — was the single defining factor that secured a narrow victory over the governing AK Party in Turkey’s largest city.
Now the Turkish media is abuzz with reports that Mr İnce is plotting his own movement.
The latest of these came from the veteran journalist Saygı Öztürk, who wrote in the secularist newspaper Sözcü today that he had spoken to one of Mr İnce’s close associates, who confirms the former presidential candidate is planning to leave the CHP.
Mr Öztürk does not name his source, but provides a transcript of what they told him. It is entirely possible from the tone of what they say that this “associate” is none other than Mr İnce himself.
The associate suggests Mr İnce is critical of the CHP’s strategy of forging electoral alliances with other anti-Erdoğan parties and wants to win “not with friends or alliances, but with our own party.”
The anti-Erdoğan camp’s victories in last year’s local elections were, the associate continues, were not the achievement of the CHP or its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, but rather the individual candidates and the Kurds who voted for them.
“They could not even thank the Kurds,” the associate adds.
But aside from his grievances against the CHP’s leadership and a vague reference to assembling a party staffed by experts, the Sözcü interview sheds little light on what kind of movement a Muharrem İnce-led party would be.
He is far from the only one to have sensed political opportunities on the horizon: despite the pandemic, 11 new parties have set up shop in the first half of 2020, more than in the previous three years combined.
Nor is his dislike of Mr Kılıçdaroğlu a secret: Mr İnce first challenged him for the leadership in 2014, lost spectacularly, and tried again in 2017. The fact that Mr Kılıçdaroğlu then made him the CHP’s presidential candidate the following year was a clever piece of politicking because it meant his closest rival could not blame him for any defeat.
That said, Mr İnce has strong qualities. His charisma comes in the form of a confident bravado that lends itself well to Turkish election campaign, and there is little doubt that he has energised the centre-left more than most of his contemporaries.
But that midnight WhatsApp message spoke volumes about his judgment.
His failure to make a single appearance on election night 2018 was a colossal oversight. His choice to keep quiet gifted the narrative to the Erdoğan camp. In effect, he told his supporters that if he was not going to win, he was not interested.
It is no coincidence that it is Ekrem İmamoğlu, and not Mr İnce, who is talked about as the CHP’s natural candidate at the next presidential election. Perhaps that is why he talks about going it alone.