Contrary to recent reports, coups are not a catalyst for democracy

Coups used to be associated with the rise of dictatorial regimes – but since the Cold War, many have been followed by elections. Yet the regimes that emerge are often undemocratic. Oisín Tansey says these elections are frequently window-dressing and are held in order to secure favourable trade deals and placate international organisations. More often than not, coups act as a catalyst for instability and repression rather than the emergence of benign democratic rule.

thai coup

A soldier during the 2006 Thailand coup against Thaksin Shinawatra. Photo: John Berns via a CC-BY 2.0 licence

In recent years, a new and surprising idea has emerged suggesting that coups d’état may actually be a force for democracy. The argument is surprising because coups have historically been associated with the rise of long-lasting and often brutal dictatorial regimes. During the Cold War, coups brought Suharto to power in Indonesia, military rule to Egypt, Pinochet to power in Chile, and allowed Hafez al-Assad to consolidate rule in Syria.

These and other seizures of power during the Cold War era rarely gave way to government by moderate or democratically-minded leaders, and coups acted primarily as a means to install enduring authoritarian rule.

By contrast, coups in the post-Cold War period have demonstrated a distinctive characteristic – they are much more likely to be followed by some form of democratic election within a few years. A coup in Cambodia in 1997 was followed by elections the following year, while a seizure of power in Fiji in 2000 gave way to free and fair elections in 2001. The democratically elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya’s removal from power in 2009 was followed by fresh elections even before the year was out. Recent studies have suggested that a major reason for this new trend is that contemporary coup leaders face a drastically different international environment from that faced by their Cold War predecessors.

With the end of the Cold War, Western states and international organisations developed a strong normative preference for democracy, and increasingly used their material leverage to promote democratic development abroad. In particular, the rise of democratic conditionality created a new incentive structure for coup leaders: either hold elections, or lose the aid and trade on offer from Western democratic states and international organisations. International democracy pressure thus helps explain the rise of post-coup electoral competition.

But these arguments have oversold the link between coups and democracy in two important ways. The first problem is that elections are not a particularly good indicator of genuine democratic rule. While elections can clear a path to sustainable democracy, they may also be used by sitting incumbents to entrench authoritarian rule and facilitate regime survival rather than act as any kind of threat to it. Elections are often used as window dressing to signal the democratic legitimacy of a regime, even as the rulers rig the system in ways to ensure they don’t lose.

When looking at measures that capture the prevailing level of democracy rather than just the presence or absence of elections, it becomes clear that most post-coup countries have struggled (or been unwilling) to consolidate genuine democratic rule.

A recent study shows that most countries that experienced a coup in the years after 1991 failed to achieve stable democratic rule, and instead consolidated some form of autocratic regime. Using a widely used 21-point democracy scale (the Polity index), we can see that the average 5-year change in post-coup democracy levels across all coup countries since 1991 was less than a single point increase. Post-coup elections may be more common, but post-coup democratic development remains rare.

A key reason for this pattern also illustrates the second weakness of the democratic coup thesis. Far from being a consistent force for democracy, the international environment can vary quite significantly from country to country, and post-coup rulers in one setting may receive a very different reaction from coup leaders in another. Not all international actors are active democracy promoters, and even those who claim to care about democracy regularly look the other way when allies or strategically important countries are involved. When Egypt’s democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi was removed from power and arrested in 2013, the international reaction was far from united and the more punitive responses were relatively tame. Although the coup was condemned in some quarters, and Egypt was suspended from the African Union, many states voiced only muted criticism, while others offered outright support. The US refrained from describing the ousting of Morsi as a coup, which would have triggered automatic sanctions, and instead continued to work closely with the new authorities. Saudi Arabia went further and was quick to applaud the Egyptian military for its actions, and, along with other Gulf states, offered an immediate aid package amounting to $12billion. When coup leaders can count on the tacit or open support of major international powers, they are much more like to be able to resist whatever democracy pressure that is enforced by others.

There is no question that the politics of post-Cold War coups is systematically different from what has gone before, and contemporary coup leaders face a tougher international environment that their historical counterparts. But we should avoid any temptation to see this shift as ‘good news’ for international democracy or for the countries who experience these sudden upheavals. More often than not, coups act as a catalyst for instability and repression rather than the emergence of benign democratic rule.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit. It was first published at the OUPblog.

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