Yesterday’s military coup in Burundi, which was greeted with jubilation by crowds in the capital city of Bujumbura, will undoubtedly revive the debate over whether coups can be good for democracy. In the last few weeks, Burundi has seen violent protests over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in upcoming elections, leaving over 20 dead. It is far from clear whether the coup has actually succeeded, but a coup may not be the worst outcome in this increasingly volatile situation.
(For background on the events in Burundi, see “Coups, revolutions and what’s next for Burundi”.)
Recent academic research on the subject of “good coups” or “coups for democracy” can help shed some light on the current situation in Burundi. In a journal article, Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans say that the majority of successful coups since the end of the Cold War have led to competitive elections, not a consolidated military regime. From this finding, the authors conclude that “the new generation of coups has been far less harmful for democracy than their historical predecessors.”
Marinov and Goemans argue that leverage from international actors — specifically aid conditionality — has been highly influential in bringing about democracy post-coups. They maintain that outside incentives alter the rulers’ calculus. Coup-makers-turned-rulers are particularly vulnerable to pressure and it is in these cases that Marinov and Goemans expect aid conditionality will have a greater chance of success.
Clayton Thyne and Jonathan Powell argue in another recent study that coups in authoritarian regimes can provide a necessary “shock” to push authoritarian states towards democracy. Thyne and Powell write:
“Though history is unfortunately replete with examples of coup leaders who chose to consolidate their power and continue authoritarianism following a successful coup, many others have chosen to enact meaningful reforms toward democratization—reforms that would have been wholly unlikely in the absence of a successful coup.”
Offering the coups in Mali in 1991 and Portugal in 1974 as examples of “good” coups, Thyne and Powell assert that “successful coups should promote democratization because leaders have incentives to democratize quickly in order to establish political legitimacy and economic growth.”
Both studies offer compelling evidence that the conventional wisdom on coups and democracy may need to be rethought. The studies do not celebrate coups, but argue that post-coup moments offer windows of opportunity for democratic opening. The optimism in the aftermath of the military coup in Burkina Faso in October 2014 is also suggestive that coups can offer a critical moment for democratization. Bringing the Mali example to the contemporary period, however, in which it is no longer a democratic exemplar, more research is needed to examine the long-term effects of coups on democracy.
The outcome of Burundi’s coup remains highly uncertain. The studies highlighted above, however, suggest that not only is a return to civilian rule and the staging of competitive elections likely, but that the international community holds a significant amount of leverage — aid conditionality in particular — that could help bring about a quick restoration of civilian rule.
One potential obstacle for the international community to nudge the post-coup moment towards democracy, however, is the status quo condemnation of coups in the international community. The United States bars assistance to coup leaders, as do many regional and international organizations. This law has led to the U.S. selectively applying the “coup” label when dealing with its allies (see Egypt). The U.S. has a strong relationship with Burundi’s military, which undoubtedly played a role in the State Department’s reluctance to label yesterday’s events a coup. Given the highly uncertain nature and potentially costly unintended consequences of coups, international actors would be wise to continue to unequivocally condemn coups. That said, the above research demonstrates that the international community has unique leverage in post-coup situations. As such, once coups occur, policymakers may want to consider new ways to wield such leverage on coup leaders, as opposed to universally isolating them.
Alexander Noyes is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexHNoyes.
Monkey Cage posts on developments in Burundi can be found by clicking here. Recent posts include:
Stephanie Schwartz: Are elections straining Burundi’s fragile peace?