HILJ Symposium: The Democratic Coup d’Etat
[Ozan Varol is Assistant Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark Law School.]
This post is part of the Harvard International Law Journal Volume 53(2) symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.
This article examines the typical characteristics and constitutional consequences of a largely neglected phenomenon that I call the “democratic coup d’état.” To date, the academic legal literature has analyzed all military coups under an anti-democratic framework. That conventional framework considers military coups to be entirely anti-democratic and assumes that all coups are perpetrated by power-hungry military officers seeking to depose existing regimes in order to rule their nations indefinitely. Under the prevailing view, therefore, all military coups constitute an affront to stability, legitimacy, and democracy.
This article, which draws on fieldwork that I conducted in Egypt and Turkey in 2011, challenges that conventional view and its underlying assumptions. The article argues that, although all military coups have anti-democratic features, some coups are distinctly more democracy-promoting than others because they respond to popular opposition against authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, overthrow those regimes, and facilitate free and fair elections.
Following a democratic coup, the military temporarily governs the nation as part of an interim government until democratic elections take place. Throughout the democratic-transition process, the military behaves as a self-interested actor and entrenches, or attempts to entrench, its policy preferences into the new constitution drafted during the transition. Constitutional entrenchment may occur in three ways: procedural, substantive, and institutional. The article uses three comparative case studies to illustrate the democratic-coup phenomenon and the constitutional-entrenchment thesis: (1) the 1960 military coup in Turkey; (2) the 1974 military coup in Portugal; and (3) the 2011 military coup in Egypt.