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Popular Mobilization Makes Democracy More Likely After a Coup

January 17, 2023
Marianne Dahl and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Marianne Dahl, a senior researcher at International Peace Research Institute Oslo, and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, the Regius Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government at the University of Essex, analyze how protests and mobilization affect the aftermath of coups.

Some have suggested that military coups are the best hope for removing autocratic leaders and promoting democracy. Others contend that coups are more likely to spur increased repression and new autocratic regimes, undermining hopes of democratic reform. There are certainly historical examples where coups have preceded democratic reform—take for example the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal. But coup attempts have also ushered in harsher autocratic rule, such as in Equatorial Guinea after 1968. The empirical record shows no clear or consistent relationship. A look at changes in Polity democracy scores, a common comparative measure of democracy and political transitions, shows that although political change is much more likely after a coup, moves towards democracy and autocracy are about equally likely.

In a recent article in the European Journal of International Relations, we argue that what happens after a coup hinges on popular mobilization. Democratic reform is more likely when coups occur in the context of popular mobilization, and autocratic entrenchment is more likely in its absence.

Considering leader incentives after coup attempts sheds light on why coups spur democratic reforms at times and autocracy at others. Both failed and successful coups leave political rulers in a challenging position. A coup reveals divisions among elites and is likely to exacerbate competition. It is often unclear who remains loyal and how much support an incumbent can count on. There is a high likelihood of new coup attempts, and rulers challenged by a coup are more likely to be exiled, jailed, or executed.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.