The Deep State: Forms of Domination, Informal Instutions and Democracy

The Deep State: Forms of Domination, Informal Instutions and Democracy


In Turkey, the deep state is generally used to denote that “power holders exceed their authority and penetrate mainly the security sector and the judiciary”. As the attributes included in the definition increase and generalize, the concept is emptied and discussions become meaningless. Another mistake is to reduce the concept to a network of interest. This mistake raises the illusion that the deep state can be destroyed by imprisoning the individual groups.

The definition of deep state is implicit within the definition of the state. State is a legal entity vested with the legitimacy of monopoly to use force,1 yet within the framework of the reason of the state (raison d’état), the rights of the state to go beyond legality and human rights shall be reserved; in other words, as Carl Schmitt explains, the right of the power holders to declare a state of emergency shall be reserved.2 The deep state is, in a Weberian sense, a mode of “domination”3. Its trademark is that it is a mode of both formal and informal, in other words, dual domination. The deep state emerges in the absence of the democratic oversight of the military or – as in the tutelary democracies - under the circumstances where the executive body misuses its authority as we observe in the countries, particularly in South American countries, subject to the presidential system, where military oversight does not exist or civil oversight is managed in undemocratic ways.4 We can detect the existence of the deep state quantitatively by measuring the “autonomy of the military”5, in other words, its authority of decision- making. Military autonomy presents a continuum that spreads in the professional- political- judicial spheres and in which each sphere is attached to one another and the boundaries become blurred while they are being attached. If military autonomy is at a high or a very high level, the constitutional institutions become Janus- faced. Owing to these Janus-faced official institutions, the informal institutions such as the threat of coup, autocratic cliques, mafia, organized crime, corruption and extrajudicial execution become effective. 6 Hence, the conditions of dual domination come into being.

Firstly, let us analyze the professional sphere7. Military doctrine and training, based on the fact that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) is the bearer and the guardian of the official ideology, has incontestably become the basis for the privileged status of the military. Within the scope of Kemalism/Ataturkism, civil-military bureaucracy aimed to establish a uniform nation-state against plurality regarded as a threat and to educate people through the Westernization/ modernization project. It supported secularism with a Jacobin mentality and the discourse of “anti-secularist” enemies within legitimized the coup threat. In the period of the deep state that started with the transition to the multi-party system in 1946, “armed” military coups were staged in 1960 and 1980 and “unarmed” ones in 1971 and 1997. After every transition to democracy, the coup threat continued to suppress the elected officials as if it was swinging above them like the sword of Damocles. The notorious article in TSK’s Internal Service Code, which has proved a legal basis for the military coups, has never been addressed.

Although military autonomy in the professional-political sphere has decreased by means of the reforms, it is still at a high level. The over-centralized structure of TSK, with the Turkish General Staff at the focal point, has been the basis for political autonomy. The Turkish General Staff is still affiliated to the Prime Ministry instead of the Ministry of National Defense. Even if a reform were to be made today, the superiority of civilians could not be achieved without a radical change since the Ministry of National Defense consists of the army members subject to the chain of command. Since 2011, the Supreme Military Council (YAfi) that makes decisions on promotion, retirement, disciplinary punishment and discharge from the army has changed its practices in favor of civilians, yet the YAfi Act, based on the principle of military superiority, has not yet been addressed. Moreover, the army has economic power thanks to political autonomy. The “military-industrial complex” established pursuant to the 1960 coup, the Armed Forces Pension Fund (OYAK), which is a “military holding” ranking among the top five holdings in Turkey, has been strengthened by means of privatization of the state-owned enterprises, and thanks to the low-interest loans and tax concessions8. According to Transparency International, the transparency of the Turkish defense budget is on the same medium-low level as Rwanda and Tanzania9. We know only some part of the military expenses since there is a significant amount of extra budgetary funds. As per the Law on the Turkish Court of Accounts, the army shall not be subject to efficiency and effectiveness audits, the results of the audits will be shared with the public to the extent that the military allows and the Council of Minister circular approves.

Penetrating the political-judicial sphere, the military tutelage has severely damaged the electoral system. The Constitutional Court dissolved 24 political parties it regarded as enemies within (mostly pro-Kurdish, Islamic or socialist parties). Although the decisions of the National Security Council, which established duality in the legislature and executive, are leveled down to the decisions of consultation and the National Defense Security Paper is revised by the government, the National Strategy Paper determining the defense policy is still developed and implemented outside the government10. The crucial element in the political-judicial sphere is the shield of impunity resulting from military and civil jurisdiction, in other words, the Janus-faced jurisdiction. We should address impunity in the historical background of the chain of informal institutions comprising autocratic cliques, mafia, organized crime and extrajudicial execution. Autocratic cliques are exclusive groups composed of the leaders of the secret military operational units and/or organized crime groups. In Turkey, the main autocratic clique was established, affiliated with the intelligence and military operation agency called “Gladio” founded by NATO and having ties with the USA and UK Intelligence Agencies (CIA and MI6), against the “communist threat” in the 1950’s11. Gladio was used for eliminating political opposition and for overthrowing governments when necessary12. Gladio was founded under the name of “Counterguerrilla” in Turkey in 1952, after the membership to NATO and was supported by a civil underground organization called “White Forces”. The official name of the Counterguerrilla is the Special Warfare Department (Özel Harp Dairesi) established as an affiliate to the General Staff of Turkey. The Special Warfare Department has operated under different names within the course of time: The Tactical Mobilization Council (Seferberlik Tetkik Kurulu) (1952-1967), the Special Warfare Department (1967-1991) and the Special Forces Command (Özel Kuvvetler Komutanlığı) since 1991.13

The Tactical Mobilization Council and the National Security Service (Milli Emniyet Hizmeti Riyaseti), the predecessor of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), organized the pogrom aimed at the Greeks and Jews in Istanbul on 6-7 September, 1955. In the 1960’s, MIT, Gendarmerie Intelligence and Anti- Terrorism Unit (JITEM), the Special Operations Department and leadership of the village guards joined the autocratic cliques. The Special Warfare Department was in a close cooperation with the CIA during the Cold War. A prime minister was for the first time informed about the deep state when the head of the Special Warfare Department, deprived of financing provided by the Joint US Military Mission for Aid to Turkey, asked for money from Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit as the USA laid an arms embargo on Turkey in response to the Cyprus intervention in 1974.14

The deep state has a symbiotic relation with the low intensity warfare because resources can easily be created through arms trading, drug trafficking and money laundering. The existence of autocratic cliques are denied by the state and protected by the shield of impunity. In the 1970’s, the mafia and members of organized crime emerging among the extreme right organizations such as the Association for Struggling Against Communism and Idealist Hearts (Ülkü Ocakları), be they Mehmet Ali Ağca who comfortably and without any effort escaped from one of the most strictly monitored prisons in Turkey while serving his time for the Abdi Ipekçi assassination or Abdullah Çatlı, a murderer and drug dealer, who was travelling with a green passport in Turkey while he was wanted by Interpol’s Red Notice, were protected. Extrajudicial executions, namely “unknown assailant murders”, disappearances, assassinations and massacres shaped the political agenda. The Special Warfare Department and MIT organized the massacres of Kızıldere (1972), Taksim Square (1977), Bahçelievler and Kahramanmarafl (1978) and the assassination of Ankara Deputy Public Prosecutor Doğan Öz (1978) and journalist Abdi Ipekçi (1979). They attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Ecevit (1977) and Turgut Özal (1988) who tried to struggle against the deep state.15  

As Gladio was abolished in Europe after the Cold War, the deep state in Turkey started to rise on account of the declaration of a state of emergency in 1987 due to the low intensity war between the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and PKK. The threats such as the new global order formed in the 1990’s after the Cold War, the rise of the political Islam, PKK’s will to found an independent Kurdistan and the First Gulf War were countered by the establishment of hegemony for the first time by Ataturkism.16 In the 1990’s, particularly between 1993 and 1996 when Tansu Çiller, the leader of the True Path Party (DYP), was prime minister, military autonomy reached the peak level owing to full support of the political leadership to the autocratic cliques and hegemony of Ataturkism and the deep state became the state itself. In this period, the Special Warfare Department and MIT played a role in the bombing of the Kurdish supportive newspaper Özgür Ülke (1994) and the murder of many Kurdish businessmen. (1993-1994).17

The triangle of “state-mafia-parliament” became apparent with the Susurluk and fiemdinli scandals. In 1996, the Former Deputy Chief of Istanbul Police, Hüseyin Kocadağ, and Çatlı, who was wanted by Interpol, were killed in a car crash in Susurluk and Sedat Bucak, the leader of a village guard tribe and a fianlıurfa deputy of the True Path Party, which established a coalition government with the Welfare Party (RP), survived the accident with injuries.18 The Deputy Prime Minister, Tansu Çiller, protected the deep state in her speech referring to Susurluk in 1996: “Those who shot and were shot for the sake of this state are always remembered with respect. They are honorable.” 19  Official investigations on Susurluk documented the role of Special Operations Department, Mehmet Ağar, who was the Minister of Interior in RP- DYP Government, and JITEM in the deep state. 20 In 1993-1995, when Mehmet Agar was the National Chief of Police, the Special Operations Department was attached to the General Directorate of Security and was used for the struggle against PKK. Hüseyin Kocadağ was, as well, a member of the Special Operations.21 

In 2005, a PKK confessor and two non-commissioned officers who were alleged to be working for JITEM were caught in the act during the bombing of a bookshop in the town of Semdinli in Sirnak. JITEM is accused of five thousand “unknown assailant murders” and 1500 missing people between 1989 and 2008. Kurdish politician Vedat Aydın (1991), Musa Anter, an intellectual (1992), 75 correspondents and distributors of the Özgür Gündem Newspaper (1992-1994) and its successors, Major Cem Ersever, Former Commander of Gendarmerie Forces, Full General Eflref Bitlis (1993), Chief of Diyarbakır Police, Gaffar Okan (2001) are among the people who were assassinated.22 The existence of JITEM, denied by the General Staff, was documented in the “certificates of merit, state payrolls, investigation commissions and confessions and explanations of the personnel who worked for them”.23 Unknown assailant murders occurred mostly in 1992-1994. Most of the murders will not be brought to court as of 2014, since the statute of limitation for the cases, for which the Prosecutor has not commenced the legal process, is 20 years - unless they are declared to be crimes against humanity.

The deep state has lost its power with the democratization reforms in the 2000’s, yet it is still standing. In 2002, the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) which came to power after separating from the National Vision Movement in which political Islam was organized, presented the EU membership process and the reforms as evidence to prove that the Party turned into a pro-Western, conservative central-right political elite and thus, was able to protect itself against a possible intervention.24 In a period when the Cyprus problem was being discussed in the European Union, the USA was moving away from Turkey, which refused to participate in the invasion of Iraq and, AKP was clearly supported in the Middle East, the military did not oppose the reforms with the “instinct to survive” in order not to lose its leading position in Westernization to AKP and not to hinder the EU membership process supported by the majority.25 The e-memorandum published on the website of the General Staff in 2007 so as to protect secularism resulted in nothing after the success of AKP in the elections. As the coup threat weakened, for the first time in the history of the Republic, the retired and active high-ranking commanders started to be tried under the Ergenekon case in 2008 for planning four military coups in 2003-2004. AKP aimed for judicial autonomy. The constitutional package that was passed with the 2010 referendum paved the way for bringing the military coups to court and removed the immunity of the Chiefs of the General Staff. The Ergenekon case was followed by the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) Case in 2010 and the case of “Action Plan against Reactionary Forces”, which was combined with the indictments of websites set up for propaganda against the government in 2011. Ilker Baflbuğ, the Former Chief of General Staff was arrested within the framework of the “Action Plan against Reactionary Forces Case” in 2012. The coup of 12 September 1980 also began to be tried, followed by the operations of 28 February.

What do these cases mean? As a reflection of the political polarization, according to CHP, radical secular middle classes, university members, neo-nationalist nongovernmental organizations and think tanks, these cases are nothing but an intimidation policy against the opponents of the ruling party. The influence of AKP felt in the governmental organizations leads to allegations that “it has founded its own deep state”. In this respect, there are three points we need to underline: First of all, bringing hundreds of members of the army before the judge does not eliminate the deep state. Under the AKP rule military autonomy is still at the highest level. Moreover, military autonomy might increase in the absence of democratic opposition, which will urge AKP for democratization reforms. Secondly, the cases include only the coup plans; in other words, the scandals of Susurluk and fiemdinli, the Special Warfare Department, JITEM, relation of the deep state with the previous parliaments and governments are excluded. Thirdly, transformation of detention into punishment due to the never ending cases and arrest of the journalists damage the legitimacy of these cases. Despite acting desperately, AKP has weakened the military tutelage, and thus, decreased the power of the deep state. It has as well spread to the institutions but it is not enough to create its own deep state. The deep state gains power with the “Kurdish issue”. The main point we should be concerned about in the name of democracy is that by only dealing with some coup perpetrators, that is to say, the tip of the iceberg, AKP does not address the autocratic factions and basically has no problem with the existence of the deep state. We cannot eliminate the deep state unless peace is established in this territory.


1. Max Weber (1978): Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, (translator) Ephraim Fischoff vd., Berkeley: University of California Press, s. 54.

2. Mithat Sancar refers to Carl Schmitt while he establishes the relationship between lawfulness and the deep state, See. Mithat Sancar (1998): Yasallık ve Meflruluk Geriliminde Hukuk Devleti, Birikim, Issue 116, 36-44; Carl Schmitt (1993): Legalität und Legitimität, 5th Edition, München und Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker&Humblot. 

3. Weber ibid.

4. For a more comprehensive analysis of the deep state, see Mehtap Söyler (2012): Informal Institutions, Forms of State and Democracy: The Turkish Deep State, Democratization, 1-25 <doi:10.1080/13510347.2011.650915>.

5. David Pion-Berlin (1992): Military Autonomy and Emerging Democracies in South America, Comparative Politics, sayı 25, 83-102. I am expanding the analytical framework of Pion-Berlin from the professional-political arena to the judicial arena.

6. For the informal institutions in question, see Hans-Joachim Lauth (2000): Informal Institutions and Democracy, Democratization, Issue 7, 21–50.

7. For the military autonomy between 1980-1997, see Ümit Cizre (1997): The Anatomy of the Turkish Military’s Political Autonomy, Comparative Politics, Issue 29, 151-166.

8. Ismet Akça (2009): OYAK: Kimin Ekonomik Güvenliği, Ali Bayramoğlu and Ahmet Insel (ed.): Almanak Türkiye 2006-2008, Güvenlik Sektörü Ve Demokratik Denetim, Istanbul: TESEV Yayınları, p. 179-181.

 9. Transparency International UK, The Transparency of National Defense Budgets, London, Ekim 2011, p. 20–1.

10. Ali Bayramoğlu (2004): Asker ve Siyaset, Ahmet Insel and Ali Bayramoğlu (ed.): Bir Zümre, Bir Parti: Türkiye’de Ordu, Istanbul: Iletiflim Yayınları, p. 91.

11. According to Murat Belge, the deep state takes its roots from the Teflkilat-ı Mahsusa (The Special Organization), an intelligence organization which was particularly active in the massacre of the Armenians in 1915, during WWI; see Murat Belge (1998): Teflkilat-ı Mahsusa, Birikim, Issue 116, 16-20.

12. See Daniele Ganser (2005): NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe, London: Cass, p. 224–45.

13. See Ecevit Kılıç (2010): Özel Harp Dairesi: Türkiye’nin Gizli Tarihi, Istanbul: Timafl Yayınları.

14. Bülent Ecevit (1991): Karflı Anılar, DSP Yayınları; Ecevit: Türkiye’de Derin Devlet Var, Hürriyet, 20.11.2005.

15. Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, Ahmet fiık (2011): Kırk Katır, Kırk Satır 1, 2. baskı, Istanbul: Ithaki Yayınları; p. 25-42; Kılıç, Özel Harp Dairesi, ibid., p. 150-228.

16. Mesut Yeğen (2006): Kemalizm ve Hegemonya, Ahmet Insel (ed.): Kemalizm, Modern Türkiye’de Siyasi Düflünce, 5th Edition, Istanbul: Iletiflim Yayınları, p. 56-74.

17. Kılıç, Özel Harp Dairesi, ibid., p. 297-300.

18. See Soner Yalçın, Doğan Yurdakul (2000): Reis, Istanbul: Su Yayınları, p. 387-9.

19. Çiller: Çatlı fierefli, Milliyet, 27.11.1996.

20. For the official investigation documents, see Susurluk Records, Preparation No. 1997/221, Record No. 1997/1, 30.1.1997; Kutlu Savafl, Susurluk Report, Prime Ministry Inspection Board, 10.1.1997; Veli Özdemir (1997): Susurluk Documents Volume: 1. Minutes of Statements, Emek Kürsüsü Dizisi, 1st Edition, Istanbul: Scala Yayıncılık; Veli Özdemir (1997): Susurluk Documents Volume: 2. Minutes of Statements. GNAT Committee Report including the comments of the opposition, Emek Kürsüsü Dizisi, 1st edition, Istanbul: Scala Yayıncılık; GNAT Research Commission, Report on the Political Unsolved Murders Committed in Various Places in Our Country, Registry No. 10/90, Edition No. A.01.1.GEÇ/300-554, Decision No.10, 12.10.1995.

21. Ertan Befle (2006): Özel Harekât, Ümit Cizre (ed.), Almanak Türkiye 2005: Güvenlik Sektörü ve Demokratik Denetimi, Istanbul: TESEV Yayınları, p. 114-123.

22. See Human Rights Association,<>; Ecevit Kılıç, 5 Bin Kifliyi Öldüren JITEM Dağıtılmadı, Sabah, 26.1.2009; Ecevit Kılıç (2010): Jitem: Türkiye’nin Faili Meçhul Tarihi, Istanbul: Timafl Yayınları.

23. Ertan Befle (2006): Jandarma Istihbarat (JITEM/JIT), Ümit Cizre (ed.), Almanak Türkiye 2005: Güvenlik Sektörü Ve Demokratik Denetimi, Istanbul: TESEV Yayınları, p 172.

24. Ihsan Dağı (2008): Turkey’s AKP in Power, Journal of Democracy, page 19, 29.

25. Ümit Cizre (2007): The Justice and Development Party and the Military: Recreating the Past After Reforming It, Ümit Cizre (ed.) Secular and Islamic Politics in Turkey: The Making of the Justice and Development Party, London& New York: Routledge, p. 140–144

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