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A coup d'état (/ / listen ; French: [ku deta]), sometimes translated as "blow of state" or "hit of state", but the literal translation is "stroke of the state" – as in the swiping or stroke of a sword; plural: coups d'état, (pronounced like the singular form), also known simply as a coup (//), putsch or an overthrow, is the illegal and overt seizure of a state by the military or other elites within the state apparatus.
The phrase coup d'état (French pronunciation: [ku deta]) is French, literally meaning a "stroke of state" or "blow against the state". In French the word "État", denoting a sovereign political entity, is capitalized.
Although the coup d'état has featured in politics since antiquity, the phrase is of relatively recent coinage; the Oxford English Dictionary identifies it as a French expression meaning a "stroke of state". The phrase did not appear within an English text before the nineteenth century except when used in translation of a French source, there being no simple phrase in English to convey the contextualized idea of a "knockout blow to the existing administration within a state".
One early use within text translated from French was in 1785, in a printed translation of a letter from a French merchant, commenting on an arbitrary decree or "arrêt" issued by the French king, restricting the import of British wool. What may be its first published use within a text composed in English, is in an editor's note in the London Morning Chronicle, 7 January 1802, reporting the arrest by Napoleon in France, of Moreau, Berthier, Masséna, and Bernadotte:
There was a report in circulation yesterday of a sort of coup d'état having taken place in France, in consequence of some formidable conspiracy against the existing government.
...the actors in torture, the distributors of the poisoning draughts, and the secret executioners of those unfortunate individuals or families, whom Bonaparte's measures of safety require to remove. In what revolutionary tyrants call grand[s] coups d'état, as butchering, or poisoning, or drowning, en masse, they are exclusively employed.
Usage of the phrase
Clayton Thyne and Jonathan Powell's dataset of coups defines attempted coups as "illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive." They arrive at this definition by combining common definitions in the existing literature and removing specificities and ambiguities that exist in many definitions.
In looser usage, as in intelligence coup or boardroom coup, the term simply refers to gaining a sudden advantage on a rival.
Since an unsuccessful coup d'état in 1920 (the Kapp Putsch), the Swiss-German word Putsch (pronounced [pʊtʃ], coined for the Züriputsch of September 6, 1839, in Zurich), also denotes the politico-military actions of an unsuccessful minority reactionary coup.
Other recent and notable unsuccessful minority reactionary coups that are often referred to as Putsches are the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch and Küstrin Putsch, 1961 Algiers Putsch and the 1991 August Putsch and the 2016 Turkish coup d'état attempt. Putsch was used as disinformation by Hitler and his Nazi supporters to falsely claim that he had to suppress a reactionary coup during the Night of the Long Knives. Germans still use the term Röhm-Putsch to describe the murders, the term given to it by the Nazi regime, despite its unproven implication that the murders were necessary to prevent a coup. German authors often use quotation marks or write about the sogenannter Röhm-Putsch ("so-called Röhm Putsch") for emphasis.
Pronunciamiento ("pronouncement") is a term of Spanish and Latin-American origin for a special type of coup d'état. The coup d'état (called golpe de Estado in Spanish) was more common in Spain and South America, while the pronunciamiento was more common in Central America. The pronunciamiento is the formal explanation for deposing the regnant government, justifying the installation of the new government that was effected with the golpe de Estado.
In a coup, it is the military, paramilitary, or opposing political faction that deposes the current government and assumes power; whereas, in the pronunciamiento, the military deposes the existing government and installs an (ostensibly) civilian government.
According to Clayton Thyne and Jonathan Powell's coup dataset, there were 457 coup attempts from 1950 to 2010, of which 227 (49.7%) were successful and 230 (50.3%) were unsuccessful. They find that coups have "been most common in Africa and the Americas (36.5% and 31.9%, respectively). Asia and the Middle East have experienced 13.1% and 15.8% of total global coups, respectively. Europe has experienced by far the fewest number of coup attempts: 2.6%." Most coup attempts occurred in the mid-1960s, but there were also large numbers of coup attempts in the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. Successful coups have decreased over time. Coups that occur in the post-Cold War period are more likely to result in democratic systems. Coups that occur during civil wars shorten the war's duration. Research suggests that protests spur coups, as they help elites within the state apparatus to coordinate coups.
- Failed coup.
- No regime change. Such as when a leader is illegally shuffled out of power without changing the identity of the group in power or the rules for governing.
- Replacement of incumbent dictatorship with another.
- Ouster of the dictatorship followed by democratization.
The 2016 study found that about half of all coups — both during and after the Cold War — install new autocratic regimes. New dictatorships launched by coups engage in higher levels of repression in the year that follows the coup than existed in the year leading to the coup. One third of coups during the Cold War and 10 percent of post-Cold War coups reshuffled the regime leadership. Democracies were installed in the wake of 12 percent of Cold War coups and 40 percent of the post-Cold War coups.
Samuel Huntington's three types
Writing in 1968, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington identified three types of coup d'état, which correspond to the role the military plays in three different types of praetorian society". As society changes, so does the role of the military. In the world of oligarchy, the soldier is a radical; in the middle class he is a participant and arbiter; as the "mass society looms on the horizon he becomes the conservative guardian of the existing order".
In breakthrough coups, the soldier plays the role of "reformer", moving the society from "Oligarchical to Radical Praetorianism". "In oligarchical praetorianism the dominant social forces are landowners, the leading clergy, and the wielders of the sword". In "radical" society, the middle-class is an important social and political class. The shift toward "radical" society take the form of slow evolution, or a "breakthrough" to middle-class political participation may be led by civilian intelligentsia. A breakthrough to radical praetorianism (in which the military plays an important role among the middle class who govern) may occur when middle-class officers dislodge the civilian intelligentsia who led the breakthrough, or the military may take power directly from the absolute monarchy or the oligarchs in a military coup.
In this type of coup, society is in the stage of "radical praetorianism", meaning that the praetorian society is in the "middle stages in the expansion of political participation" - the middle-class (including the military) are actively involved in politics, but the masses are not regularly politically mobilized. This type of society often follows the breakthrough coup, which "clears the way for the entry of other middle-class elements into politics". In radical praetorian society, various middle-class groups may act against one another in riots or demonstrations, and the military will step in with a military coup to re-establish order and "halt the rabid mobilization of social forces into politics and into the streets…to defuse the explosive political situation".
Veto coup d'état
Veto coups d'état occur when the army vetoes the people's mass participation and social mobilisation in governing themselves. "Military interventions of this "veto" variety thus directly reflect increasing lower-class political participation in politics". In "veto coups" the soldier plays the role of "guardian of the existing order". In such a case, the army confronts and suppresses large-scale, broad-based civil opposition.
A 2003 review of the academic literature found that the following factors were associated with coups:
- officers' personal grievances
- military organizational grievances
- military popularity
- military attitudinal cohesiveness
- economic decline
- domestic political crisis
- contagion from other regional coups
- external threat
- participation in war
- and military's national security doctrine
- officers' political culture
- noninclusive institutions
- colonial legacy
- economic development
- undiversified exports
- officers' class composition
- military size
- strength of civil society
- regime legitimacy and past coups.
The cumulative number of coups is a strong predictor of future coups. Hybrid regimes are more vulnerable to coups than very authoritarian states or democratic states. A 2015 study finds that terrorism is strongly associated with re-shuffling coups. A 2016 study finds that there is an ethnic component to coups: "When leaders attempt to build ethnic armies, or dismantle those created by their predecessors, they provoke violent resistance from military officers." Another 2016 study shows that protests increase the risk of coups, presumably because they ease coordination obstacles among coup plotters and make international actors less likely to punish coup leaders. A third 2016 study finds that coups become more likely in the wake of elections in autocracies when the results reveal electoral weakness for the incumbent autocrat. A fourth 2016 study finds that inequality between social classes increase the likelihood of coups. A 2016 study rejects the notion that participation in war makes coups more likely; to the contrary, coup risk declines in the presence of enduring interstate conflict.
In what is referred to as "coup-proofing", regimes create structures that make it hard for any small group to seize power. These coup-proofing strategies may include the strategic placing of family, ethnic, and religious groups in the military; creation of an armed force parallel to the regular military, and development of multiple internal security agencies with overlapping jurisdiction that constantly monitor one another. Research shows that some coup-proofing strategies reduce the risk of coups occurring. However, coup-proofing reduces military effectiveness, and limits the rents that an incumbent can extract.
A 2016 study shows that the implementation of succession rules reduce coup attempts. Succession rules are believed to hamper coordination efforts among coup plotters by assuaging the elites who have more to gain with patience than with plotting.
Research suggests that coups promote democratization in staunchly authoritarian regimes, have become less likely to end democracy over time, and that the positive influence has strengthened since the end of the Cold War.
A 2014 study found that "coups promote democratization, particularly among states that are least likely to democratize otherwise". The authors argue that coup attempts can have this consequence because leaders of successful coups have incentives to democratize quickly in order to establish political legitimacy and economic growth while leaders who stay in power after failed coup attempts see it as a sign that they must enact meaningful reforms to remain in power. A 2014 study found that 40% of post-Cold War coups were successful. The authors argue that this may be due to the incentives created by international pressure. A 2016 study found that democracies were installed in 12 percent of Cold War coups and 40 percent of the post-Cold War coups.
Repression after failed coups, and counter-coups
According to Naunihal Singh, author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups (2014), it is "fairly rare" for the prevailing existing government to violently purge the army after a coup has been foiled. If it starts mass killing elements of the army, including officers who were not involved in the coup, this may trigger a "counter-coup" by soldiers who are afraid they will be next. To prevent such a desperate counter-coup that may be more successful than the initial attempt, governments usually resort to firing prominent officers and replacing them with loyalists instead.
Some research suggests that increased repression and violence typically follow coup attempts (whether they're successes or failures). However, some tentative analysis by political scientist Jay Ulfelder finds no clear pattern of deterioration in human-rights practices in wake of failed coups in post-Cold War era.
The international community tends to react adversely to coups by reducing aid and imposing sanctions. A 2015 study finds that "coups against democracies, coups after the Cold War, and coups in states heavily integrated into the international community are all more likely to elicit global reaction." Another 2015 study shows that coups are the strongest predictor for the imposition of democratic sanctions. A third 2015 study finds that Western states react strongest against coups of possible democratic and human rights abuses. A 2016 study shows that the international donor community in the post-Cold War period penalizes coups by reducing foreign aid. The US has been inconsistent in applying aid sanctions against coups both during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods, a likely consequence of its geopolitical interests.
Organizations such as the African Union and Organization of American States have adopted anti-coup frameworks. Through the threat of sanctions, the organizations actively try to curb coups. A 2016 study finds that the African Union has played a meaningful role in reducing African coups.
Current leaders who assumed power via coups d'état
1Monarch who overthrew his father in a bloodless palace coup.
2As head of Provisional Government of Eritrea, which declared independence 24 May 1993.
3Subsequently, confirmed in office by an apparently free and fair election.
4Subsequently, confirmed by a narrow margin in the 2009 Mauritanian presidential election, which was deemed "satisfactory" by international observers.
5Acting Prime Minister at that time.
6Hadi resigned on 22 January 2015.
- Civil-military relations
- Contrast with civilian control of the military
- Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook
- Coup de main
- Leadership spill
- List of coups d'état and coup attempts
- List of coups d'état and coup attempts by country
- List of fictional revolutions and coups
- List of protective service agencies
- Military dictatorship
- Political corruption
- Political warfare
- Seven Days in May
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- The dictionary definition of coup d'état at Wiktionary
- Media related to Coups d'état at Wikimedia Commons