The Praetorian State and Its Owners
The concept that best describes the regime in Turkey is praetorian republic. In a praetorian republic, the state may be a disorderly, anarchic power tool of a less than professional army marching behind adventurous chiefs as seen in Latin America in the past. The most significant example to these kinds of praetorian states is the last period of the Roman Empire. Initially, the praetorian guards (cohors proetoria), were established for the protection of high rank military officers and consuls. In Augustus era, the praetorian guards were given the authority to enter into the sacred corners of the Roman rule with their arms. Thus, they became the imperial guards. Then, they turned out to be a powerful and influential class and played a significant role in selecting of consuls and emperors as well as in influencing the decisions of the senate. They started to take side in favor of the political surroundings that best served their own interests. Furthermore, they transformed their own interest into the interest of the state. This has to be defined as an archaic praetorian power type.

In the 19th century, the adjective “praetorian” was used to define this type of a dominant political body which violates the principles of representative democracy and yet seemingly leaves a certain political space to the parliament in order to enforce its authority. For example, Marx used this term to criticize Napoleon III’s regime[2]. Then followed the new praetorian regime definitions in the modern world, especially those after the World War II.

The modern praetorian state, like its predecessor in the Roman Empire, is a regime where the military and civilian bureaucracy is lodged in the very center, dictating the actual course of the political regime. However, it is decidedly different. It would be more appropriate to mention here the presence of a praetorian clique as much as that of a praetorian power. The presence of military powers in it ensures that dictating, directing, and restricting actions come into play with forcefulness at critical moments or that they are internalized to a certain extent by the societal players. Nevertheless, a praetorian regime is not an openly military dictatorship. It is the regime of the tutelage of a military-civilian clique.

In this context, we can define the regime in Turkey as a “limited pluralist system” under the influence of the military. An analysis of the regime setting out from such a definition cannot remain confined to the presence of praetorian powers and circles. One must also evaluate the capabilities of these circles to intervene effectively in political-social life.

The praetorian nature of the republic in Turkey is inherent in its foundation. To illustrate this, we can consider the intervention on 28 February 1997 centering around the National Security Council (MGK) as a typical action of the modern praetorian republic without having to go as far into the past as the militarized state and nation practices in the early Republic, i.e the military coups that took place in 1960 and 1980, and the military memorandum of 12 March (see Radikal2, A. İnsel, “Praetorian forces and the regime”, 25 February 2007; Yeni Yüzyıl, 21 and 28 March 1998). The ways in which the praetorian regime operates and dictates the course of society at critical moments are not static. They vary depending on social developments, world conjuncture, and the nature of the forces they oppose. This is one of the major differences between the archaic praetorian regimes and the modern ones. The modern praetorian regime possesses the methods of intervention and influence that do not require resorting to a coup or direct rule of the military bureaucracy. In this kind of regime, the military coup bears greater productivity for the regime’s economy as long as it remains a very distant albeit real possibility. Other political and social actors never disregard the possibility of a military coup even though they explicitly claim the opposite. A belief like “there would not be another coup d’etat” is in itself a sign that, the hegemony of the praetorian regime is, to a great extent lasting.

The developments immediately preceding the memorandum of 27 April, the legal obstacles put up in order to prevent the Justice and Development Party (AKP) from electing the president single-handedly. The organizations of certain demonstrations against the government were organized directly by the praetorian powers while the others were indirectly encouraged by them. This therefore, afforded us the opportunity of observing at a degree of keenness akin to that of a laboratory how the praetorian republican regime in Turkey adapts itself to the conditions of the times and how it operates. The presence of significant differences with the past practices of the praetorian regime does not mean that its essential characteristics have changed. They point to the regime’s capability of adaptation and its resilience in the face of social and political developments, which in turn expose the difficulty of exiting from the praetorian regime.

On 28 February, the “mobilization of the civilian public” was made to happen not by means of public demonstrations but by summoning people and institutions directly to the MGK and the General Staff headquarters and briefing them on the situation. In those days, we witnessed non-governmental organizations, labor unions, professional chambers, journalists, businessmen, and the community of higher education line up outside of the offices of the MGK and the headquarters of the General Staff in Ankara and the military garrisons in a number of provinces in order to receive briefings. The representatives of the “briefed civilian public” from the Confederation of Revolutionary Labor Unions (DISK) to the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSİAD) were so enthusiastic and in such a hurry to “get in as soon as possible” that quarrels occasionally broke out for front places in the queues.

The process that led to the suspension of the presidential election, of which the 27 April memorandum played its part, was however different from that of 28 February. This time, the mobilization of the civilian public was ensured by means of “Republic demonstrations” and the support of a newspaper, a television channel, and several associations rather than military briefings. Viewed from a very narrow angle, this may be seen as a step towards further “civilianization” and democratization. But it cannot be construed as altering the essential nature of the praetorian regime or inching open the door to its end. On the contrary, it has somewhat more impact than the public opinion polls, primarily in the West, in the sense that it explicitly demonstrates the public support given to the praetorian regime. This situation would at the same time, one way or another, play a part in the legitimization of a potential coup d’Etat,.

What gives the praetorian powers the legitimacy to carry out all these interventions in a parliamentary regime based on free elections is the power of “ownership.” In a praetorian regime, the prevalent idea is that the regime and the state have their “owners.” In order to amount to something more than an idea and a belief, this needs to be associated with a unified entity of political practices.

The political institutions established or strengthened by the 12 September regime, and the authority given to them, the rules that narrowed the political sphere, the authoritarian tendencies ignited in the social area, all together exhibit the operational side of the praetorian regime. Beneath this, there lies the phenomenon of ownership which has been gradually imprinted on the public perception in an increasing manner since the foundation of the Turkish Republic. The praetorian regime functions effectively to the extent that it succeeds to reconstruct the public imagery according this principle of ownership. Because then, it becomes more plausible to pass off the regime’s institutions and the course of political life as a natural development.

At the moment, the praetorian regime supporters resort to effective means like separating the government and state authority nearly in an absolute way, creating a distinct “state authority” conception, or even defining those two as the opposing poles. For example, the political party which is let to be the government can openly be denied to exist in the sphere of the state. This is a perfect indicator that the state authority has an area of ownership whose owners are determined outside the scope of democratic deliberations. This phenomenon of ownership does not necessarily have to reside with the military forces or the security forces alone in a praetorian regime. The ever existence of a clique in the heart of the military and civilian bureaucracy together with societal factions under its ideological sphere of influence frees the praetorian regime from the burden of maintaining its existence as a military or police republic.

The acknowledgement of the presence of certain owners of the state and the regime requires acquiescence to the powers and responsibilities associated with this right of property. As is known, ownership is based on exclusion. Owning something creates the consequence that someone else cannot own it. Or, as in the case of public property, it leads to the consequence that no single person or group can lay claim to what is owned by everyone (all citizens). The rights of use arising from ownership cannot be relinquished to individuals or groups in true communal ownership. Therefore, in a regime where sovereignty is unconditionally invested in the nation, no one can claim, “this regime has its owners,” “the state is not without its owners,” or “we are the owners of the state.” Even if they do, they cannot find the legal and institutional grounds to turn their claims into reality. In a praetorian republic, however, it is this very sense of ownership that lies at the ideological and institutional core of the regime.

The praetorian republic may keep the boundaries of the pluralist “democracy” relatively spacious under the tutelage of the praetorian powers as long as it enjoys a solid circle of support around it. This gives rise to the illusion that there is a possibility to break free from the praetorian regime by acting within these broadened boundaries and by having the regime’s own mechanisms operate. Such a possibility does exist on paper but one of the most important factors preventing it from happening is that the attempt at breaking free from this tutelage is made by the opposing powers, which ironically, owe their very strength mainly to their reactionary position. These reactionary powers, however internalized the principles of the praetorian political imagery such as limited pluralism, and the indivisibility of the right of ownership a long time ago. For example, we have seen on various instances that the AKP’s “democraticness” derived from reaction and its conservatism bear the genetic stamp of the praetorian republican mind set.

Although the AKP defines itself as the “periphery” as opposed to this praetorian center, in the final analysis it displays an attitude precisely matching the dialectic opposition Hegel referred to in the master-slave relationship. Because, in fact what the AKP wants is mainly to take the place of the owner. It demands a change of owners in the regime, not an end to the practice of ownership itself. The AKP does not realize that the problem lies with the system or it feels that ignoring this fact is to its advantage. Therefore, it confines its struggle to the domain of praetorian power by countering its adversary’s moves in the race for ownership. It demonstrates an understanding of democracy based on the superiority of the majority. It fills the government posts with people known for their sectarian affiliations. Rather than consolidating its hegemony by making compromises at its own initiative from a position of advantage, it surrenders to excessive conviction about the righteousness of its actions, which makes the latter impossible. It upholds formalism just as strongly. The reaction the AKP administration and staff feel against their rivals cause them to lock on to this reactionary approach, enslaved by the attitudes of their opponents that assume the nature of humiliation with a patina of class discrimination.

The praetorian regime will enjoy the capability of emphasizing its continued monopolization of the status of ownership of the regime as long as it can produce an opposing force largely possessing its own authoritarian codes. This is its basic need to have its existence confirmed at every opportunity. The political imagery of the AKP gives the praetorian powers more room for maneuver because of the former’s focus on reacting against the powers, groups, and their surrounding circles that declare themselves to be the owners of the state and the regime. The AKP turns itself into a copycat of its rivals the more it allows its political actions and even its political vision to be defined in terms of this reaction. This may indeed be the case, which gives the praetorian powers the chance to cry wolf and to press once again the button to mobilize the guided civilian public, an opportunity they more than welcome.

Well, does this whole situation mean that we are destined to remain as the watchers, victims, or beneficiaries of this endless bout of tactical moves and countermoves? Isn’t it at all possible to break loose from this regime?

One way of getting out of the praetorian regime lies in the aftermath of a massive political or military defeat where the praetorian powers will totally lose their prestige. The signs of such a defeat are not in Turkey’s horizon. Besides, it’s worth remembering that the social price to be paid for this way would generally be extremely great and would aggravate the traumas in society.

The second way out is for a democratic, libertarian voice, that refuses to narrow down its political horizons to reaction against these powers and to reduce its public psyche to a sentiment of reaction and revenge, a voice that offers a program for exiting from this regime to the public in a clear way that instills confidence and avoids doomsday prophecies and to manage to enlist public support. The fact that the rhetoric for getting out of this regime has been abandoned to the monopolization of the right-wing political powers in Turkey is the biggest obstacle blocking this second path.

The upcoming elections in Turkey and their probable results bear no hope of a clearer perspective in getting free of the praetorian regime for the time being.

[1] This is a english version of the article published in Birikim, 218, june 2007 .
[2] A. İnsel, “Praetorian powers and regime”, Radikal2, 25.2.2007; Yeni Yüzyıl, 21 and 28 March 1998.