University of Louisiana, Lafayette

Much A Coup About Nothing: Examining the Distinction Without Difference Between Coups d’Etat and Promissory Coups by Steve Noyes @ University of Louisiana, Lafayette

Exploring the concept of the promissory coup as it relates to the traditional coup d’etat.

     The general global decline in coups d’état, while a positive facet of the ever-changing world, has created inits wake a new kind of non-democratic executive replacement.  Promissory coups, in which an elected regime is removed, usually by means of military force, with the removing entity making the promise to hold “legitimate” elections as a result of the coup-maker’s seizure of a nation’s executive power, have allegedly replaced the traditional coup as the new preferred tool for those looking to subvert the democratic process within a given nation.  This re-branding of the seizure of power seeks to create distance between traditional coups and this modern style, when in fact it is a distinction without difference serving only to allow coup-makers to attempt to legitimize themselves by justifying their subversion of democracy as a defense of it. This association, when coupled with the promise of “free and fair” elections,concedes to the population that genuine electoral victories are the currency of political legitimacy even while asserting the need to invalidate the results of the previously held election.  Despite these justifications as offered by coup-makers, it is practically impossible in the moment to distinguish a promissory coup from the traditional coup d’état,and nearly all of the former are in fact the latter.

            The primary mechanism of both promissory coups and coups d’état, generally the application of military force by either state forces or militia groups, is only one point of similarity.  Whether the seizure is performed by the uniformed forces of a nation against a civilian government, a seated executive refusing to surrender executive power to an elected successor,or a minority group within the government using irregular forces to supplant the executive power, the end result is the same; the popular will of the nation being superseded by the interests of a group able to exert sufficient force to displace the elected head of state in a given system.  

     The 2006 and 2014 coups in Thailand, as referenced by Bermeo, serve as an excellent illustration of this problem.  The Thai military, the ultimate source of authority in the kingdom, kept its original promise following the 2006 ouster of the elected prime minister and allowed for elections to be held, even allowing some members of the ousted governing party to reclaim some modicum of power despite outlawing the party itself.  Ultimately, however, the military proved itself the actual arbiter of governance in Thailand by again seizing power from the elected regime in 2014.  The second coup shows that any popular support derived from the electoral process did not amount to any real power to preserve the elected government against the whims of the military. At no point in the intervening period did the military lessen its grip on actual power, and at no point since has the democratically elected government in Thailand been able to act in keeping with any reasonable expectation of self-determination critical to democratic legitimacy.

            The promised elections that are essential to promissory coups, when they do actually occur, are nearly never free or fair. Few have resulted in a return to power for the ousted government or the loss of the coup-maker’s preferred candidate, and even fewer were accepted by the ousters as legitimate.  Indeed, Bermeo is only able to provide one example of the described phenomenon that resulted in an improvement of political liberties or civil rights.  Lesotho’s outcome following the 1994 coup illustrates the underlying problem with seeking to make the distinction between coups d’état and promissory coups: if the argument that there is a difference only contains a single example of the latter, a difference may not exist.  It seems far more the case that the promise to hold elections is, like the elections that would be held, a performative exercise used by the coup-makers to legitimize their power to the public.  While there is certainly a use in having a term for this specific type of executive replacement, it is much more appropriate to treat it as a sub-class of the traditional coup d’état rather than as an evolution of the phenomenon.

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