At the end of August, the prime minister of Lesotho fled to neighboring South Africa, saying he had been overthrown by the military. He subsequently returned to the capital with the assistance of South African police, and although the situation remains murky, he appears to have survived a failed coup attempt. In June, when the coalition government began to break down, the Monkey Cage reviewed the situation in Lesotho and expected military intervention to be unlikely, primarily because popular support for democracy was high and popular support for military rule was extremely low. It is useful to understand why this expectation is wrong-headed.
First, it is not clear whether dislike toward military governments translates into antipathy toward coup attempts that do not produce military governments and even claim that they are acting to protect democracy. In Lesotho, for example, a military spokesman denied that there had even been a coup attempt, saying the military had acted only to protect protesters from being attacked by police. In the absence of recent public opinion polls, it is difficult to know how the population of Lesotho has reacted to the military intervention. However, in Mali, which similarly experienced a coup attempt (Mali’s was successful) despite a majority of the population expressing antipathy toward military rule, 64 percent of respondents were satisfied with the coup’s success. The Mali experience suggests that support for democracy and dislike of military government does not automatically generate a blanket opposition to all forms of military intervention.
More fundamentally problematic, however, is the assumption that popular opinion has an impact on coups. Although this claim is common in political science, there is no evidence to support it. Over the course of writing my book, “Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups,” I spent 300 hours talking with participants in 10 coup attempts in Ghana and statistically analyzed the determinants of every coup attempt and outcome in the world from 1950 to 2000. Based on this evidence, I argue that there is no reason to believe that military factions hesitate to attempt coups when popular opinion is against them, or that coup attempts are more likely to fail when the populace is opposed.
Over the course of this research, I observed that conspirators devoted very little consideration during coup plotting to the question of how the population would react. Coup makers are largely convinced that their cause is just (even when the coup comes from a partisan or personal interest), and that they will have widespread popular support for their actions, with perhaps limited opposition coming from entrenched special interests. And, in general, coup attempts do encounter very little popular protest, although this is not a reflection of support for military intervention. Coup attempts generally transpire very quickly and, with a few noteworthy exceptions, are over before civilians can mobilize in opposition. If a coup succeeds, civilians respond strategically. Opponents of the previous government will rejoice, joined by opportunists who wish to curry favor with the new rulers. Supporters of the previous government will usually remain quiet, afraid of bringing attention to themselves. Because successful coups are generally met with expressions of popular support, it spuriously appears that public opinion had a role in encouraging the conspirators to act.
Quantitative analysis supports the claim that there is no connection between the occurrence of coup attempts and popular opinion, although the evidence here is indirect. Because we lack continuous polling data for all countries around the world over the past 50 years, assessing the relationship between public opinion and coup attempts requires the use of proxies that should be related to support for or opposition to the incumbent. For example, it is reasonable to assume that citizens would be happier with a government during periods of high economic growth and unhappier with it during periods of low growth or even decline. However, it turns out that there is no relationship between economic growth rates and the likelihood of a coup. Similarly, there is no relationship between regime type and coup attempts. Even though democracies are presumed to have higher levels of legitimacy than other kinds of political regimes, they were no more or less likely to experience coup attempts. Lastly, coup attempts were actually more likely to occur during presidential election years, which suggests that conspirators were acting to thwart the popular will rather than being constrained by it.
My research also reveals that public opinion has no effect on coup outcomes. Once a coup attempt begins, military actors rarely consider the reaction of civilians to the coup, and their decision to support or oppose the coup attempt had nothing to do with which side had more popular support. Statistically, coups were no less likely to succeed in countries with governments that could be assumed to have reasonably high levels of support (countries with high economic growth, democracies or one-party regimes) than the opposite.
The bottom line is that the dynamics of a coup attempt are almost entirely internal to the military. How the citizens of a country feel about either military governments or democracy has very little impact on whether there will be a coup attempt in a country, and if so, whether that coup will succeed. Although civilians obviously have a role in the long-term trajectory of a country, armed actors matter the most in the short term. In the end, the apparent coup in Lesotho failed, not because the people were against it (we have no idea how the people felt about the coup attempt) but because South Africa intervened, returning Prime Minister Tom Thabane to Lesotho with an escort of armed police. The best hope for protecting democracy in Lesotho, it appears, will be the commitment of the government of South Africa to defend it.
Naunihal Singh is an assistant professor in the department of international-security studies at the Air War College, in Montgomery, Ala., and the author of “Seizing Power,” a book about why some coups fail and others succeed, from Johns Hopkins University Press. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not represent those of the Air War College, the Air Force or the Defense Department.