“It’s only a coup if it comes from the Coup region of France; otherwise it’s just Sparkling Authoritarianism.” This playful, albeit ironic, tweet reflects a currently pressing question in both political scholarship and popular culture: what defines a coup?
Coup d’état, French for “stroke of state,” broadly refers to an overthrow of a sitting government—typically by a small, often elite, group. Coup scholars recognize varying definitions of the term, ultimately expanding and narrowing its meaning as demanded by specific situations. In popular news culture, the analytical ataxia is even more heightened. Growing tropes of political instability, electoral denialism, and revisionist corruption have made it difficult to isolate an exact description of a coup d’état.
Many of the media reports on the recent attack on the Brazilian capital—coming after President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected into office—refer to the event as a coup. Additionally, many political outlets position it in parallel with the event with the January 6, 2020, attack on the US Capitol Building, an event that produced its own fair share of discussion about coups. To diagnose both these political upheavals as coups, despite their differences, is a tendency with which both media and scholarship must contend.
The scholarship on elections has become scatteringly complicated—and it’s repeatedly challenged in the mayhem following a coup. Academic analyses seem to be heading toward nuance. For instance, conflict scholars Tore Wig and and Espen Geemuyden Rød distinguish a coup, “in which the leadership of a regime is removed from power,” from a revolution “in which the entire regime elite is ousted.” Following a coup d’état, regime elites are likely to retain their positions of privilege; following a revolution, the entire structure of society may change.
Wig and Rød explain a need for an analytic redirection, citing literature that challenges the linear model of democracy. According to them, “there is a need to investigate the conditions under which coups are democratizing and autocratizing.” Framing their research with this narrowed definition, they investigate the seemingly paradoxical connection between coups and elections. Elections are widely recognized as a democratic installation, and thus canonically viewed as a façade when used by authoritarian regimes. However, the connection between elections and coups is more complicated than simply optics: electoral institutions are an effective instrument for autocracies, strong tools that legitimize a political racket by projecting strength.
Using a qualitative model to analyze the correlation between coups and election activity, Wig and Rød explain that electoral institutions can stabilize autocracies with a high coup risk, but specific election events—particularly when they reveal the weakness of an incumbent—do the opposite, stimulating coup risk. Thus, contrary to much of the existing scholarship on elections in autocracies, Wig and Rød argue that “elections have the potential to be a force for instability and change rather than a tool of stabilization.” Moreover,
when incumbents show electoral weakness, executive elections have the potential to prompt coup attempts from the regime elite, whose privileged positions in society are threatened by being “on the wrong side” in times of political upheaval.
Scholars Sharan Grewal and Yasser Kureshi also provide nuance to the consideration of elections as effective political tools, highlighting a challenge that replacement powers face: the need to legitimize their power. Some 53 percent of “power-seeking” military coups since 1946 have been followed by elections. Why would a regime that seized power in violation of constitutional procedures turn immediately to democratic processes, particularly given that elections can trigger new coup attempts?
Grewal and Kureshi offer the theory of dual legitimacy, wherein leaders must prove their right to rule not just by explaining why they hold office but how they came to hold that office. Paying particular attention to legitimization practices—specifically, elections—implemented by authoritarian regimes in the aftermath of coups, they present a case study that includes other contributing factors like military aid, which plays a greater role than previously accorded to it by analysts. In fact, their study shows that
coup leaders who oust democratically elected leaders but who depend on military aid from Western democracies—primarily the United State will need to present a democratic façade to avoid an aid suspension.
In this way, post-coup elections become less about convincing the governed of a regime’s legitimacy and more about convincing the world.
While Brazil—a focus of the cited literature—is by no means an autocratic state, recent events in its capital highlight a need to increase political and cultural literacy around coups. As the scholarship shows, juxtaposing different election and government models can build a better definitional framework. News buzz is undoubtedly a fast-paced take on contemporary social thought—but scholarship must follow suit if it is to effectively examine coups as a function of power.