Pelican clique undermines Turkey’s ruling party, seeks Istanbul re-vote

More than 10 days since the apparent victory of the opposition candidate for Istanbul mayor in Turkey’s March 31 local elections, the results are still in dispute.

Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu maintains a slim lead after two partial recounts of invalid votes, while the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has called for a full recount, a request the main election board rejected, and now a rerun of the Istanbul vote. Nearly two weeks after the election, AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım remains in contention.

Many in Turkey say the attacks against the legitimacy of the polls have been led by a group known for aggressive media tactics and influence among senior officials: the Pelicanists.

Fırat Erez is a former member of the group with close knowledge of its workings. He worked as a freelance content producer and artistic director for the group, and later as an editor for some of its websites, including Lies of the Day, which aims to dispute news stories critical of the AKP.

Before he quit the Pelicanists, Erez also edited HDP truths, a smear site targeting the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and Democracy Diary, a site devoted to articles praising the ruling party. These are just some of the websites and activities connected to the Pelicanist-run, Istanbul-based think tank Bosphorus Global.

Prominent names Erez has linked to the Pelicanists include Elif Şahin, a member of the AKP’s administrative board for Istanbul, and academic Filiz Gündüz. Hilal Kaplan, a columnist for pro-government newspaper Sabah with a formidable social media following, is seen as a major player in the group, alongside her husband Süheyb Öğüt and brother-in-law Selman Öğüt.

Sabah is owned by the Turkuvas Media Group, which is run by Serhat Albayrak, the brother of Berat Albayrak, the treasury and finance minister and son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Several prominent social media figures with a history of supporting opposition causes, including Serkan İnci, Murat Soydan and Merve Taşçı, are also linked to the group, Erez said.

Erez, who calls the group’s activities “Pelicanism”, views it as a social epidemic. This seems a far cry from the group’s original mission, which was to create the social media presence the AKP lacked and use it to publicise party activities and fact-check critical news.

“At the time I was working with the group, when Kurdish militants were fighting Turkish armed forces in the southeast of Turkey, it did work in that way,” Erez told Ahval.

Conflict resumed between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group seeking Kurdish self-rule through armed struggle, after the breakdown of peace talks in 2015.

“After I’d left, it continued working like that for several months. Right up until the Pelican files were released,” he said, referring to files published anonymously in April 2016 that listed disagreements between Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu, then prime minister.

Those 27 files, which were named as a nod to the 1993 film “The Pelican Brief”, amounted to an attack on Davutoğlu, who was forced to resign as prime minister that year. He was replaced by Binali Yıldırım, a compliant politician who campaigned for a constitutional referendum the next year that made his own role as prime minister defunct before becoming AKP candidate for Istanbul mayor.

“Everybody knew (the Pelicanists) could not have acted without Erdoğan’s knowledge. So, everyone saw that Erdoğan was behind the Pelican group, and started to obey them. That’s how Pelicanism spread, first through the media, then the party and the state, and more and more now through society,” Erez said.

“Pelicanism is a strategy, a tactic, a pattern of behaviour,” said Erez. Those who do not conform to it, he said, quickly find themselves forced away from the centre of power.

Erez believes the AKP’s losses in four out of five of Turkey’s largest cities in the recent local elections were a result of this strategy.

“There was always a reaction against the Pelicanists among the AKP base, although this criticism was never associated with Erdoğan and was always voiced quietly. But now it’s been raised to a point it can no longer be ignored,” Erez said.

This criticism has peaked since the March 31 vote, when the group’s rejection of the opposition victory in Istanbul and call for recounts and a re-vote has brought them into the open. Pelicanists reportedly set up a Twitter account (@secimhileleritr) focused on exposing possible voter fraud in Istanbul. Hilal Kaplan was the first to share the account’s tweets.

Despite mounting criticism, the Pelicanists have continued their efforts, hoping Erdoğan will back them up, Erez said.

On Tuesday, Erdoğan appeared to signal his continued confidence in the Pelicanists with an official photograph (shown above) that included Kaplan and others associated with the group accompanying the president on his flight home from Moscow.

Shortly after the photo was taken, the ruling party announced it had applied to the electoral board for the Istanbul mayoral election to be held again, citing irregularities at the polls.

The photo also underscored the discomfort many long-term AKP supporters feel about the direction in which the group has led the party. One widely known conservative columnist, Cemile Bayraktar, went so far as to call for the formation of a new party.

“I’ve got the message, Erdoğan will keep going with the Pelicanists,” she wrote. “Well good luck to him, it’s his choice. But nobody can claim any more that Erdoğan didn’t know what was going on.”

The show of support for the Pelican group is unwelcome to some AKP politicians, including Ankara deputy Aydın Ünal, who worked as Erdoğan’s speechwriter from 2007 to 2015.

In a series of tweets on April 1, Ünal blamed Yıldırım’s defeat on the Pelican group, which he said had poisoned the ruling party.

“Binali worked hard and ran a good campaign, he didn’t deserve this result,” Ünal said. “History will remember the treachery and sabotage he suffered.”

Erez believes the discomfort voiced by Bayraktar and others has been exacerbated by the group’s infiltration of important institutions.

“It’s clear that this gang is not a part of the AKP organisation, the state or the government, but that they have infiltrated all these institutions as well as the media and are trying to influence events according their own secret agenda,” Erez said.

For this reason, the group prefers to conceal the sources of its funding. This comes from what Erez sees as a Ponzi scheme created by the AKP during its 17 years in power, and includes private companies and institutions with close government links, as well as public institutions and hospitals.

The Istanbul municipality, with its $7.5 billion budget, accounts for one of the most important sources of this funding, and Erez says its loss on March 31 would constitute a major blow.

“You can expect the entire funding and cash distribution system to become endangered, but also for the illegality and corruption to be exposed,” Erez said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.