Notes on Turkish Politics (2): The Rise and Fall of Praetorian State


Since the transition to multiparty democracy in 1950, Turkish political life witnessed two fully fledged direct military coups in 1960 and in 1980 and a memorandum issued by the army that led to the fall of government in 1971. In a similar way, a post-modern coup took place that led to the fall of the government in 1997. Ten years later in 2007 a virtual coup happened in the crisis of the presidential election process.

Since the late Ottoman times, the army had held a political role to some degree. The army was the first institution through which the reform movement got initiated. However the collapse of the Ottoman Empire went hand in hand with the politicization of the military elites.

Based on the Ottoman legacy, it can be said that Turkish state mechanism used to have a praetorian state structure until the failed coup attempt in 2016. The concept of praetorian state was first used by Amos Perlmutter in 1969. Perlmutter defined a modern praetorian state as a state in which the military tends to intervene and potentially can dominate the political system. Perlmutter (1974: 6) highlights the main features of a praetorian state as the following:

“the military has the potential of dominating the political system. Its political processes favor the development of the army as the core group and as a political ruling class… In praetorian states, an army interferes in government affairs, and effects and sustains particular constitutional provisions.”

According to Eric Nordlinger (1977), military officers become praetorian soldiers when they threaten or use force to dominate the political system. In Turkey, the military used to shape politics and also control the civilian governments from time to time.

In the early years of the Republic, in single-party rule, Atatürk banned active military officers from making politics. In those years, the army was kept away from political scene. After the transition to multi-party years, in 1960, first military coup was witnessed and the army overthrew the Adnan Menderes government. The coup was carried out in a non-hierarchical order. The National Security Council (NSC) was founded after 1960 coup. The Council acted as a second cabinet in addition to the Council of Ministers. This institution gave political autonomy to the army.

In 1971 the military indirectly intervened in politics this time with a memorandum. In 1971, the army asked for the establishment of a new government. In 1980, a bloody military coup made the state apparatus become militarized in all dimensions. The universities were put under tight state control through the establishment of Higher Education Authority (YÖK). The 1982 Constitution was drafted; this constitution limited the basic rights and liberties strengthening the political autonomy of the military. The military regime ruled the country until 1983.

On the other hand, the military intervention in 1997 known as the February 28 Process (post-modern coup) did not overthrow the democratic mechanisms but made them function under military tutelage. In Turkish history, from the very beginning of the Turkish Republic, the army has been following the rhetoric of “internal enemy” in order to make its stand on the political ground enhanced. In 1997, the army put pressure on the government to resign. As seen in the past, the military bureaucracy adopted the rhetoric of protecting secularism while intervening into political system.

Until the early 2000s, the army protected its political autonomy however with the official EU candidacy in 1999 a considerable degree of democratization was witnessed in civil-military relations. Within the framework of EU harmonization packages, the political autonomy of Turkish Armed Forces has been diminished to an important degree under AK Party rule. However in 2007, in the process of the presidential elections, the military has been involved in the process once again. The then Army Chief of Staff, General Büyükanıt, commenting on the presidential election, said that he expected a president to be chosen who was sincerely dedicated to the Republic, the unitary structure of the state, and a secular and democratic state. Amid this crisis, on April 27, 2007, the army posted a statement on its website. The Turkish army posted a memorandum on its website accusing the government of having a hidden Islamic agenda. This e-memorandum followed the government’s nomination of Abdullah Gül for the post of president. This is also called as “virtual coup”.

I argue that until 2016, Turkish state structure had a praetorian nature. In fact in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in 2016, the democratization of civil-military relations in Turkey has gained a new momentum. It can be said that Turkish government today has abandoned its praetorian state.

In my next article, I will try to address Turkish politics with a special emphasis on state- religion relationship and how this relationship transformed over time and shaped political system.

Cited resources

Dr.Begum Burak
Dr.Begum Burak
Dr. Begüm Burak is an independent researcher. In 2015, Ms. Burak got her PhD degree. During her occupation as a teaching assistant, she got engaged in short-term academic activities in Italy, United Kingdom, Bosnia and Spain. In 2018, she became one of the founding members of For her twitter visit: @begumburak1984


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