When is it okay to have a coup in a democracy?

Given the number of Mali experts that came out of the woodwork following the coup and French intervention, I am a little surprised by the lack of debate in the Africanist blogosphere about the wisdom of holding presidential elections this July. 

Is Mali’s upcoming presidential election being held too soon? Can a hurried reversion to electoral “democracy” address the structural problems that led to the coup in the first place? Susanna Wing, in her piece on Mali in the latest issue of African Affairs, sounds skeptical:

In the middle of a US-funded military training seminar, a Malian military officer asked: ‘When is it okay to have a coup in a democracy?’ A Malian who assisted in the seminar shared the quote with me as evidence of how far the country still needs to go in terms of democracy. The statement is not surprising given Malian history, where coups d’état have been a method of regime change. It also sheds light on the March 2012 coup – which many Malians who are deeply committed to democracy saw as an essential first step to ending widespread corruption within the state as well as halting state involvement in illicit criminal activities. Ironically, for many Malians the only way to get democracy back on track was a coup d’état, and the current rush towards elections is viewed with suspicion and the fear that hurried elections will only bring Mali right back to the pre-coup status quo.

….There is little question that the current regime lacks legitimacy and perhaps an elected government will enjoy greater popular support. But there is a risk that a rapid transition back to multi-party politics will only serve to reinforce the political challenges that faced the political class prior to the coup d’état. 

But Marinov and Goemans’ paper on coups and democracy quickly comes to mind as a possible case for a return to electoralism in Mali. They essentially make the argument that the norm of quick return to elections structures incentives for coup plotters, making them less likely to leave the barracks if they know that no sooner will they do that than the international community will show up and demand that they return to the barracks: 

whereas the vast majority of successful coups before 1991 installed durable rules, the majority of coups after that have been followed by competitive elections. We argue that after the Cold War international pressure influenced the consequences of coups. In the post-Cold War era those countries that are most dependent on Western aid have been the first to embrace competitive elections after the coup. Our theory also sheds light on the pronounced decline in the number of coups since 1991. While the coup d’état has been and still is the single most important factor leading to the downfall of democratic government, our findings indicate that the new generation of coups has been far less harmful for democracy than their historical predecessors.

 

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3 thoughts on “When is it okay to have a coup in a democracy?

  1. I haven’t read the book, but Paul Collier’s War, Guns, and Votes (2009) favored coups, or really the credible threat of coups, as an instrument of democratization. Personally, I thought Collier’s argument took the logic of Marinov and Goemans one step too far. We can recognize that all coups aren’t unequivocally bad without proactively embracing them, a policy that would surely produce plenty of unintended consequences of its own.

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  2. Yeah. Collier’s idea was a bit too out there. It put too much trust in the international system as a force for democratization.

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  3. Pingback: Daron Acemoglu talks State Building « An Africanist Perspective

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