Pro-government clique stoking extreme polarisation in Turkey

There are some events that bring even the most polarised of societies together and make them forget their differences, and most of these are tragedies.

One such tragedy took place on Saturday, when 21-year-old Neslican Tay lost her life fighting cancer for a fourth time. But let alone bringing Turkish society together, Tay’s death appears to have only added further fuel to conflicts. And much of the blame for this toxic atmosphere lies with a shady group tied to the top ranks in Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

The young woman became a social media phenomenon due to her resilient nature and determined love of life, despite a long and painful struggle with cancer which resulted in the amputation of her left leg.

Many saw Tay’s refusal to hide her prosthetic leg or the loss of her hair to chemotherapy as inspiring. Yet one comment that made an impact on social media flew in the face of this, saying Tay’s dress had been immodest during her life and that this would prevent her from going to heaven.

The post was widely shared and widely condemned, but many saw it as a sign of something deeper that the mean-spirited nature of one user.

The polarising and provocative nature of the user’s social media posts perfectly matched the tone of a group that has recently become one of Turkey’s most influential, the Pelicans – so called because of a document it released in April 2016 that was named after the political thriller by John Grisham.

The “Pelican Brief” document listed points of contention between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu, then prime minister. By May 22, Davutoğlu had stood down.

The Pelican group is believed to centred around a think tank, Bosphorus Global, that has its headquarters in a four-storey Bosporus-side townhouse in Istanbul. Its links to Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, were revealed in hacked emails in 2016.

Meanwhile, one of the most influential members of the group, the journalist Hilal Kaplan, who writes for Sabah newspaper, a pro-government daily run by the minister’s brother, Serhat Albayrak. Kaplan’s husband, Bosphorus Global chair Süheyb Öğüt, is another leading name associated with the Pelicans.

My own involvement with the Pelican group has been widely reported in Turkish press since I quit my job editing the group’s websites and social media accounts and disclosed my experiences on my personal blog in 2017.

It was here that I revealed how members of the group would hold monthly meetings with Erdoğan in person. The enduring links between the group and the president were reaffirmed in August, when Erdoğan paid a visit to the Bosphorus Global headquarters.

I also enquired about who funded the think tank, which was forking out a fortune to rent its headquarters and paying high wages to its 17 staff. As I revealed in my blog, I was told the money was coming from Medipol, the leading hospital and medical university founded by Fahrettin Koca, who Erdoğan appointed as Health Minister last year. 

Many see fissures in the ruling party that have widened to crisis point this year as directly related to the Pelican group. The group’s best-known conflict in the AKP - with Davutoğlu – entered a new phase this month when the former prime minister and his allies resigned to work on a new political movement.

Reports in Turkey’s pro-government media say the Pelicans – or groups like them - have now set their sights on two ministers appointed by Erdoğan last year – Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül and Technology Minister Mustafa Varank.

Journalists linked to the Pelicans said in articles that Gül had allowed his ministry to become a haven for members of the outlawed Gülen religious group that Turkey blames for the coup attempt in 2016. 

When Gül responded by condemning those he said were using the kind of underhanded tactics associated with the Gülen movement, he did not specify the Pelican group by name, but few missed the implied target of his criticism.

Varank was targeted by Fuat Uğur, a journalist at the pro-government daily Türkiye, over his ministry’s project to manufacture tractors in Turkey. 

The minister hit back, accusing Uğur of acting as a triggerman in a political attack, and the newspaper was ordered to print a refutation. It demurred, instead only printing a summary of the refutation.

With the conflict now reaching the highest layers of the government, it has become impossible to conceal. But questions still remain about what has driven it, from where the Pelicans derive their power, and how they have stoked tensions to the point that even cancer victims are targeted.

The answer goes back to the first action taken by the group against Davutoğlu – the document on his conflicts with Erdoğan that sparked a wave of criticism of the prime minister and led to him stepping down.

Erdoğan, not satisfied with simply accepting Davutoğlu’s resignation, implied that the seat would be easily filled. 

The prime minister had been a popular and respected figure in the political party, making the sudden wave of criticism and accusations against him a source of confusion for many supporters of the ruling party. But Erdoğan, by then considered by most to be the sole leader of the party, dispelled any confusion by giving Davutoğlu the brush-off.

This amounted to an endorsement of the group that wrote the so-called Pelican file, and signalled a new way of doing politics.
From then on, the same tactics used against Davutoğlu were applied to dissenters – they were met with unwarranted accusations, threats, and pile-ons by trolls on social media. Well respected members of the ruling party were intimidated, declared traitors, and left out in the cold.

It was the sign of a new phase in the governing party – this, everybody was shown, was the way things would be run from then on. 
And the think tank at the centre of these new methods, with a staff of fewer than 20 people led by an overly ambitious academic and his journalist wife, had created a monster.

The tactics used by the Pelicans were imitated in every corner. Political figures of all stripes used the same methods to try to smear their enemies in bids to grab their own slice of the cake, in some cases adding their own adaptations. 

It has reached the point where even cabinet ministers are subject to unfounded attacks by newspapers that refuse to publish refutations.

When ordinary AKP supporters stoop to attacking recently deceased cancer victims via social media, they see this as a duty to their leader and society, without a care of how ugly their actions have become.

This marks the evolution of the Pelican from a specific group to a distinctive practice: Pelicanism.

The system has raised widespread unease among the AKP’s ranks, but it has an ace up its sleeve: it is presented as part of a complex strategy employed out of necessity against secret and powerful enemies of Turkey.

This acts as a shield protecting the system and its exponents from scrutiny, and makes it even more ripe for imitation. 
Yet since the Pelicans arrived on the scene in 2016, neither they nor the AKP have managed to produce anything like the “mastermind” strategies that are promised.

Instead, the country has seen a succession of waste and failure in almost every field, with political deadlock bringing Turkey to the brink of collapse.

The “extraordinary weapon against extraordinary enemies” has metastatised into a devastating illness.

Since 2016, and since Erdoğan’s rise to unchallenged one-man rule, the AKP has become embroiled in corruption of an ever-increasing magnitude.

None of the party’s fairy tales about developing native cars or fifth-generation fighter jets have been able to mask the deepening economic crisis, the gridlock in Turkey’s foreign policy, the erasure of the rule of law, or the long series of gaffes by bureaucrats.

Yet the Pelicanists can still count on mass following, in part thanks to their relationship with the strong current of Islamism in Turkey. 

The group has stirred up decades of anger among Islamists who still bear a strong grudge against secularists for actions felt to target pious Muslims in previous governments. That anger and revanchism has proven to be the fuel powering Pelicanism. If it continues to spread throughout the rest of Turkish society, it could prove to be a cancer that is too difficult to beat.