Conditions for a Coup

An excerpt from The Anti-Coup by Gene Sharp and Bruce Jenkins

When are coups likely to occur?

In some countries an internal coup is unthinkable, as in Norway and Switzerland, for example. Some conditions tend to impede coups. Where democratic constitutional procedures exist, are respected, and provide for peaceful institutionalized means to resolve internal conflicts, to change governments, and to hold government officials accountable, a coup d’état will be less likely. If the groups capable of conducting a coup—as the army—believe in democratic processes and respect the limits that have been placed on their authority, they are unlikely to attempt a coup. They may instead exert self-restraint, believing that it would be wrong to stage a coup.

The social structure of the society is also influential in determining whether a coup d’état is likely to happen. Where the civil, non-state, institutions of the society are strong and democratically controlled, and military institutions and anti-democratic political parties are in comparison weaker, a coup is not likely to occur.

Where the society works together in relative harmony a coup is not likely. That situation, however, is rare and is not required to prevent a coup. If the internal problems are at least of limited severity and can be dealt with by institutionalized and other peaceful procedures, a coup is less likely. Or, if acute conflicts are present but are conducted nonviolently instead of by internal violence, the stage will not be set for a coup by a group that promises to end internal violence and to restore law and order. Where politicians seek to serve the society and avoid corruption, one “justification” for a coup will be removed.

On the other hand, when those conditions are not present, the society may be vulnerable to coups. The roots of democratic political systems may be shallow or eroded. The government may be seen as illegitimate, and there may be widespread dissatisfaction with its performance. Perhaps it may be charged with incompetence, corruption, or indecisiveness in times of crisis. Confidence in the capacity of democratic procedures to remedy the situation may be widely lacking, and in some cases there may be no agreed procedures for succession of governments.

The civil non-state institutions of the society—voluntary institutions of many types, political parties, independent educational institutions, religious bodies, trade unions, and many other types— may be weak or nearly non-existent. Also, the general population may lack significant participation in the political system. Consequently, there would be no groups and institutions capable of opposing a seizure of the state apparatus.

The society may have very serious internal problems associated with violence. Serious social unrest, acute economic problems, sharp political conflicts, or internal violence and assassinations may make the major parts of the society willing to accept a new strong government which promises to act to “restore order” and to end the crisis.

Unfavorable economic conditions, interacting with political factors, may make a society vulnerable to coups, and it has been argued that lack of diversification in exports and excessive dependency on a variable international market for exports can create conditions in which a coup is likely.5

At times, individuals, powerful groups, a dictatorial party, or a military clique may simply lust for power and domination—with or without the guise of noble objectives.6

Such conditions do not necessarily produce a coup, however. Even when conditions for a coup may be favorable and the potential putschists lack self-restraint, they may not make the attempt because it would likely fail. This propensity to failure may derive from several sources. Important sections of the military personnel, the police, and the civil servants, as well as lower levels of government, may be viewed as unsupportive of a coup and likely to resist the attempt. The independent institutions of the society may be inclined to oppose the coup and are strong enough to act powerfully against it.

The ability of these possible opponents of a coup to act powerfully against a coup attempt can significantly influence the decision of potential coup-makers about whether to make the attempt or not. If a society is likely to resist firmly an attempted takeover, a coup is less likely to occur.

Those who attempt a coup must be able to assume that once they have seized power they will encounter minimal resistance from the bureaucracy and the populace. In societies where the masses are politically mobilized, involved, and powerful, this assumption cannot be made.7

Support for coups

The basic prerequisite of a coup is that the putschists’ organizational and repressive forces are believed to be more powerful than the other institutions and forces of the society. In short, civil society is weaker than the military forces. Indeed, in many countries, the military forces have been in recent decades expanded to be by far the strongest institution of the whole society. These military forces have often been turned against the very society and population on which their existence has depended and which they were supposed to defend. Such a military coup is more likely if the soldiers are more loyal to their officers than they are to the democratic government.

If the coup is instead an executive usurpation (sometimes called a “self-coup”8), it is necessary that the combined governmental civil bodies and military forces assisting the takeover are more powerful than the civil institutions of the society. Instead, the coup may be one conducted by a disciplined political party with its own paramilitary forces. The party’s supporters may also at times operate from key ministries in a coalition government or with support from significant sections of the military and police. To succeed, that party must be more able to act than are other sections of the society which might oppose the takeover. In some situations, agents of a foreign government may assist internal political or military groups in carrying out a coup.

In past coups, supporters of political freedom have often been silent and have passively submitted. This does not mean that when a coup attempt succeeds that the general population favored it. In many cases the population may be actually opposed, but does not know what to do. A civil war against the military forces and their allies—a war which democrats would certainly lose—has understandably inspired few. Believers in constitutional procedures and social justice have usually not known how else a coup backed by the military forces could be defeated.

Without serious preparations for an anti-coup defense, a lasting democratic system is very doubtful in many countries, especially in those with a history of coups. Even in countries that have achieved a relatively democratic political situation, anti-coup measures are important despite public statements of innocent intentions by those individuals and groups that are capable of conducting a coup.


5 See O’Kane, The Likelihood of Coups, and for a contrasting view Jenkins and Kposowa, “The Political Origins of African Military Coups.”
6 For a discussion of six types of military coups in third world countries, classified according to motivations and effects, see Steven R. David, Third World Coups d’Etat and International Security (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), pp. 13-16.
7 David, Defending Third World Regimes from Coups d’Etat, pp. 4-5.
8 From the Spanish autogolpe, used to describe cases in Latin America in the early 1990s.


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