A coup d'état (; French for "blow of state") or coup is the removal and seizure of a government and its powers. Typically, it is an illegal, unconstitutional seizure of power by a political faction, the military, or a dictator. Many scholars consider a coup successful when the usurpers seize and hold power for at least seven days.
The term comes from French coup d'état, literally meaning a "stroke of state" or "blow of state." In French, the word État (French: [eta]) is capitalized when it denotes a sovereign political entity.
Although the concept of a 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 19th 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 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."
In British Propaganda, the phrase came to be used to describe the various murders by Napoleon's alleged secret police, the Gens d'Armes d'Elite, who executed the Duke of Enghien: "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."
In German, the term was initially coined for the Züriputsch of 6 September 1839 in Switzerland; putsch denotes the politico-military actions of an unsuccessful minority reactionary coup.
During the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, putsch was used as disinformation by Hitler and other Nazi party members to falsely claim that they had to suppress a reactionary coup. Germans still use the term Röhm-Putsch to describe the event, the term given to it by the Nazi regime, despite the unproven implication that the murders were necessary to prevent a coup. Thus, 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 origin for a special type of coup d'état. 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. A "barracks revolt" or cuartelazo is also a term for military revolt, from the Spanish term cuartel ("quarter" or "barracks"). Specific military garrisons are the sparking factor for a larger military revolt against the government.
One author makes a distinction between a coup and a pronunciamiento. 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.
Since the twentieth century, an increasing proliferation of terms has arisen to describe various kinds of actual or attempted unilateral seizures of power. These phenomena, sometimes called "coups with adjectives", include:
The question of which term, if any, is applicable to a given political event can be a subjective matter, and carries normative, analytical, and political implications.
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 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. From 1950–2010, a majority of coups failed in the Middle East and Latin America. They had a somewhat higher chance of success in Africa and Asia. Numbers of successful coups have decreased over time. Coups occurring in the post-Cold War period have been more likely to result in democratic systems than pre-Cold War coups, though coups still mostly perpetuate authoritarianism. 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.
A 2016 study categorizes coups into four possible outcomes:
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
Ousting of the dictatorship followed by democratization (also called "democratic coups")
The study also 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% of post-Cold War coups reshuffled the regime leadership. Democracies were installed in the wake of 12% of Cold War coups and 40% of post-Cold War coups.
A 2003 review of the academic literature found that the following factors were associated with coups:
The literature review in a 2016 study includes mentions of ethnic factionalism, supportive foreign governments, leader inexperience, slow growth, commodity price shocks, and poverty.
The cumulative number of coups is a strong predictor of future coups.Hybrid regimes are more vulnerable to coups than are very authoritarian states or democratic states. A 2021 study found that democratic regimes were not substantially more likely to experience coups. 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 increases the likelihood of coups. A fifth 2016 study finds no evidence that coups are contagious; one coup in a region does not make other coups in the region likely to follow. One study found that coups are more likely to occur in states with small populations, as there are smaller coordination problems for coup-plotters.
A 2017 study found that autocratic leaders whose states were involved in international rivalries over disputed territory were more likely to be overthrown in a coup. The authors of the study provide the following logic for why this is: "Autocratic incumbents invested in spatial rivalries need to strengthen the military in order to compete with a foreign adversary. The imperative of developing a strong army puts dictators in a paradoxical situation: to compete with a rival state, they must empower the very agency--the military--that is most likely to threaten their own survival in office." However, two 2016 studies found that leaders who were involved in militarized confrontations and conflicts were less likely to face a coup.
A 2018 study found that coup attempts were less likely in states where the militaries derived significant incomes from peacekeeping missions. The study argued that militaries were dissuaded from staging coups because they feared that the UN would no longer enlist the military in peacekeeping missions.
A 2018 study found that "oil price shocks are seen to promote coups in onshore-intensive oil countries, while preventing them in offshore-intensive oil countries." The study argues that states which have onshore oil wealth tend to build up their military to protect the oil, whereas states do not do that for offshore oil wealth.
A 2018 study found that the presence of military academies were linked to coups. The authors argue that military academies make it easier for military officers to plan coups, as the schools build networks among military officers.
A 2019 study found that states that had recently signed civil war peace agreements were much more likely to experience coups, in particular when those agreements contained provisions that jeopardized the interests of the military.
A 2019 study found that regional rebellions made coups by the military more likely.
A 2019 study found that when civilian elites are polarized and electoral competition is low, civilian-recruited coups become more likely.
A 2020 study found that elections had a two-sided impact on coup attempts, depending on the state of the economy. During periods of economic expansion, elections reduced the likelihood of coup attempts, whereas elections during economic crises increased the likelihood of coup attempts.
A 2021 study found that oil wealthy nations see a pronounced risk of coup attempts but these coups are unlikely to succeed.
In autocracies, the frequency of coups seems to be affected by the succession rules in place, with monarchies with a fixed succession rule being much less plagued by instability than less institutionalized autocracies.
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 the occurrence of coup attempts. Succession rules are believed to hamper coordination efforts among coup plotters by assuaging elites who have more to gain by patience than by plotting.
According to political scientists Curtis Bell and Jonathan Powell, coup attempts in neighbouring countries lead to greater coup-proofing and coup-related repression in a region. A 2017 study finds that countries' coup-proofing strategies are heavily influenced by other countries with similar histories. Coup-proofing is more likely in former French colonies.
A 2018 study in the Journal of Peace Research found that leaders who survive coup attempts and respond by purging known and potential rivals are likely to have longer tenures as leaders. A 2019 study in Conflict Management and Peace Science found that personalist dictatorships are more likely to take coup-proofing measures than other authoritarian regimes; the authors argue that this is because "personalists are characterized by weak institutions and narrow support bases, a lack of unifying ideologies and informal links to the ruler."
Research suggests that coups promoting 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% of Cold War coups and 40% of the post-Cold War coups. A 2020 study found that coups tended to lead to increases in state repression, not reductions.
According to a 2020 study, "external reactions to coups play important roles in whether coup leaders move toward authoritarianism or democratic governance. When supported by external democratic actors, coup leaders have an incentive to push for elections to retain external support and consolidate domestic legitimacy. When condemned, coup leaders are apt to trend toward authoritarianism to assure their survival."
According to legal scholar Ilya Somin a coup to forcibly overthrow democratic government might be sometimes justified.
There should be a strong presumption against forcibly removing a democratic regime. But that presumption might be overcome if the government in question poses a grave threat to human rights, or is likely to destroy democracy itself by shutting down future political competition.
Repression 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 the mass killing of 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 both successful and unsuccessful coup attempts. 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.
A 2017 study finds that the use of state broadcasting by the putschist regime after Mali's 2012 coup did not elevate explicit approval for the regime.
According to a 2019 study, coup attempts lead to a reduction in physical integrity rights.
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 (AU) and the Organization of American States (OAS) have adopted anti-coup frameworks. Through the threat of sanctions, the organizations actively try to curb coups. A 2016 study finds that the AU has played a meaningful role in reducing African coups.
A 2017 study found that negative international responses, especially from powerful actors, have a significant effect in shortening the duration of regimes created in coups.
According to a 2020 study, coups increase the cost of borrowing and increase the likelihood of sovereign default.
^Norfolk Chronicle, 13 August 1785: "It is thought here by some, that it is a Coup d'Etat played off as a prelude to a disagreeable after-piece. But I can confidently assure you, that the above-mentioned arret was promulgated in consequence of innumerable complaints and murmurs which have found their way to the ears of the Sovereign. Our merchants contend, that they experience the greatest difficulties in trading with the English".
^Londregan, John B.; Poole, Keith T. (1 January 1990). "Poverty, the Coup Trap, and the Seizure of Executive Power". World Politics. 42 (2): 151-183. doi:10.2307/2010462. ISSN1086-3338. JSTOR2010462.(subscription required)
^Hiroi, Taeko; Omori, Sawa (1 February 2013). "Causes and Triggers of Coups d'état: An Event History Analysis". Politics & Policy. 41 (1): 39-64. doi:10.1111/polp.12001. ISSN1747-1346.
^Piplani, Varun; Talmadge, Caitlin (1 December 2016). "When War Helps Civil-military Relations Prolonged Interstate Conflict and the Reduced Risk of Coups". Journal of Conflict Resolution. 60 (8): 1368-1394. doi:10.1177/0022002714567950. ISSN0022-0027. S2CID3627631.
^Arbatli, Cemal Eren; Arbatli, Ekim (2014). "External threats and political survival: Can dispute involvement deter coup attempts?". Conflict Management and Peace Science. 33 (2): 115-152. doi:10.1177/0738894214545956. S2CID156930338.
^Brown, Cameron S.; Fariss, Christopher J.; McMahon, R. Blake (1 January 2016). "Recouping after Coup-Proofing: Compromised Military Effectiveness and Strategic Substitution". International Interactions. 42 (1): 1-30. doi:10.1080/03050629.2015.1046598. ISSN0305-0629. S2CID214653333.(subscription required)
^Bleck, Jaimie; Michelitch, Kristin (9 May 2017). "Capturing the Airwaves, Capturing the Nation? A Field Experiment on State-Run Media Effects in the Wake of a Coup". The Journal of Politics. 79 (3): 873-889. doi:10.1086/690616. ISSN0022-3816. S2CID157667393.