Cornell University Press

Do Democracies Need to Worry About Coups?

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This fall, when President Trump refused to accept the results of the election, it raised concerns about whether he was attempting to stage a coup to remain in power. After several weeks of delay, the transition to a new administration is now underway. But the incident raises the question: to what extent do democracies need to worry about coup attempts?

Coups can be understood as illegal, overt efforts by military or civilian elites to seize executive power. Importantly, they involve the use or threat of violence. While coup attempts are no longer as common as they once were, they still occur with troubling frequency. Since 2000, more than fifty coup attempts have occurred in thirty-one different countries. It remains exceedingly rare for coups to occur in wealthy, consolidated democracies like the United States.

Here, the bigger risk to democracy is the more gradual imposition of restrictions of political participation or chipping away at norms of accountability for political leaders—steps scholars refer to as “democratic backsliding,” rather than coups.  

Coups can be understood as illegal, overt efforts by military or civilian elites to seize executive power.

But the threat of a coup does remain pressing in more newly democratizing regimes, which have not yet developed norms of civilian, democratic governance of the military. Coups in these democracies are twice as likely to succeed as those that occur in dictatorships. In the past decade alone, democratically-elected rulers in Bolivia, Egypt, Honduras, and Thailand have been ousted from power in coups.

To protect themselves from coup attempts, leaders adopt a whole range of “coup-proofing” tactics. These tactics work in one of two ways—they either aim to address grievances that may motivate coups, or they aim to make coup attempts more difficult to carry out. One particularly common strategy, which I explore in my book, involves counterbalancing the military with other security forces, such as presidential guards, militarized police, and militia, that are independent from military control.

These types of security forces frequently resist coup attempts staged by the military. While coup-proofing is typically portrayed as a tactic of dictators, it is also used in democracies. A number of democratic regimes have employed counterbalancing precisely because they would like to remain democratic.

While coup proofing is typically portrayed as a tactic of dictators, it is also used in democracies.

Early post-independence leaders in India, for example, were acutely aware of the risk of a coup. A central aim of the expansion of the Central Reserve Police Force and other paramilitary forces in the 1960s was to contain military influence—relieving the military of internal security tasks that would have brought it into domestic politics. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was the creation of a new security force, the Special Protection Group, to protect political leaders in the event of a coup.

The relatively fragmented system of military and police power in the United States was also initially intended to help prevent the military from becoming powerful enough to intervene in politics. These are not isolated cases. All told, more than fifty percent of democracies retain at least one militarized police or other security force capable of counterbalancing the military.

Yet efforts to coup-proof come at a cost. As my book documents, establishing security forces outside of military command can generate resentment within the regular military that ends up provoking new coup attempts. The resistance that counterweights often offer to coup attempts increases the risk that coup attempts will escalate to wider violence.

Yet efforts to coup-proof come at a cost.

Moreover, these tactics are, by their nature, temporary fixes. They can make coup attempts more difficult to carry out successfully. But in the long-run, the only way to coup-proof democracies is for military officers to internalize norms of non-intervention in politics—and for civilian elites to refrain from attempting to undermine them.

*Featured image: Soldiers stand guard at the Tha Phae Gate in Chiang Mail, Thailand, during the May 2014 coup attempt, from Takeaway, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. 

Erica De Bruin is an Assistant Professor of Government at Hamilton College and Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Follow her on Twitter @esdebruin.

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