Coups d’Etat

The fruit of a successful insurgency is a revolution: a sudden and violent change in the basic makeup of a government. There is a less violent way of effecting governmental change. The most general term for this alternative is change of executive. This is a rather unwieldy and academic term, so Balance of Power lumps all such changes of power under the more familiar label Coups. This chapter will explore the nature of coups d’etat and describe how Balance of Power handles them.

A coup produces a change of executive. The old leader is thrown out and a new leader is installed in his place. The middle and lower levels of government are left intact; only the top is changed. There are two variations on this: the regular change of executive and the irregular change of executive. The first uses recognized legal procedures such as an election to remove an existing leader; the second uses less formal procedures such as a bullet through the head.

The difference between a coup and a revolution lies primarily in the intensity of violence used. A revolution is a simple contest of military power between two implacable opponents. Each side believes that defeat is tantamount to death. Each side believes strongly in the fundamental truth and rightness of its position, and each side believes the other side to be evil. The wide gap separating the two sides in an insurgency makes negotiated solutions almost impossible. Most insurgencies are fought to the bitter end. The loser does not admit defeat until defeat and gun barrels are staring him in the face.

Coups are normally resolved with less violence. Many coups are bloodless; even the most violent coups seldom involve more than a few hundred casualties. Moreover, bloodshed is seldom an intended side effect of a coup. It arises only when the coup falters and factions start to shoot. Although massive violence is the prime strategy of any insurgency, it is the first unraveling of a coup.

Another difference between a coup and an insurgency lies in the time scale of their evolution. An insurgency takes years to develop and grow; some insurgencies have dragged on for decades, and even the fastest take several years. A coup, by contrast, spends perhaps some months in planning and hours in execution. Even the longest-running coup conspiracies seldom last more than a few years.

A third difference between coups and revolutions is that revolutions normally generate dramatic changes in society, while coups seldom do so. In some cases, a coup generates almost no policy changes whatsoever; the only issue in question is the identity of the man in charge. In a very few cases, coups generate the kind of sweeping changes that we normally associate with revolutions. There is a reason for the less dramatic nature of the changes normally associated with coups. Any party that espouses dramatic changes - of any kind - will certainly frighten a large group of people. The fear of the entrenched and the opportunistic excitement of the deprived are seldom made compatible without recourse to violence.

A spectrum of violence
There are many types of coups, or at least many political phenomena that I have chosen to lump into the broad category of coups. They can be sorted and categorized on the basis of a single major variable: the amount of violence associated with the coup. I shall start my discussion at the most violent end of this spectrum and work my way toward the more peaceful coups.

Violent military coups
The most violent coups develop from attempts by factions within the military to seize power. Sometimes this can be accomplished without much fighting, but if a substantial base of loyal supporters of the existing regime can be mobilized before the plotters seizure of power is consolidated, heavy fighting will ensue. The recent fighting in Yemen was of this nature, but it represented an extreme in which the units supporting the two sides were determined to achieve success, so the fighting proved to be long and bloody. The coup in Yemen demonstrates just how deadly modern weaponry can be when used in straight, stand-up fighting instead of the more protracted tactics of guerrilla warfare.

More typical of the military coup was the attempted coup in Thailand of 1985. Several military units converged on the presidential palace. Loyal military units were rushed to the rescue. After several tense hours and a few warning shots, the rebellious units were convinced that their actions had not sparked a general revolt, and laid down their arms. There were only a few casualties.

Palace coups
A variation on the military coup is the palace coup. This is an attempt to keep casualties down by focusing military power directly on the president and his immediate staff. The instigators show up at the presidential palace with a few soldiers and put a gun to the presidents head. If all goes well, he gives in. Perhaps they simply shoot everybody and take over. Two problems make the palace coup more difficult these days.

First, in the more rough’n’ready nations, presidents have had the good sense to keep a powerful guard on the premises at all times. It gets harder and harder to pull off a simple invasion of the presidential palace. The Soviets found this out to their dismay when they assisted their fraternal brothers in Afghanistan. Their intention had been to take a few soldiers up to the presidential palace and put a bullet through the head of Hafizullah Amin, the Afghan president. Unfortunately, they did not bargain on the stiff defense that his guards put up, or their considerable number. A furious battle raged for nearly a day, with Amin himself manning the barricades. When it was over, there were quite a few casualties, not the least of which was the Soviet story that this was a simple political reshuffling with Soviet fraternal assistance.

The second problem with the palace coup is that, in the more genteel nations, assassinating the president doesn’t make you the new president; it only makes you an assassin. You suddenly find the entire nation - most importantly, the entire military - lined up against you. Oops!

Nonviolent military coups
The next step in our spectrum of coups is the nonviolent military coup. The idea here is to use the military to demonstrate power and intimidate your opponents while still avoiding violence. The attempted coup against Hitler in July, 1944, was of such a nature. The conspirators planted a bomb to kill Hitler and then moved to arrest his supporters in Berlin. Their only violent act was the bombing itself; otherwise, their coup was executed with pistols, guards, and a great deal of bluff. They failed, partially because several crucial military commanders refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of any leadership that was founded on naked military power. In effect, the conspirators failed because the German generals were too civilized to accept something as brutal as a military coup. How’s that for irony?

Often a military coup is a simple matter of the generals losing confidence in the civilian government and showing up at the presidential palace with a few tanks and announcing that the civilian government is being replaced by a military junta. Ostensibly, the junta will deal with the current emergency and then hold elections as soon as the situation has calmed enough to enable elections.

Perhaps one of the most civilized military coups in history was the attempted coup in Spain a few years ago. A Spanish colonel showed up in the Cortes (the Spanish equivalent of our Congress) with a few soldiers, shot a few rounds into the ceiling, and announced that the fledgling democracy was suspended by the military. He expected other elements of the military to fall in with his initiative. Spain held its breath: What would the military do? At this moment, King Juan Carlos donned his military uniform and appeared on television, denouncing this criminal act and throwing the full weight of his prestige behind the democracy. That did it. Generals telephoned in their pledges of loyalty, and the entire affair was reduced to a nut case with a pistol in the Cortes. He surrendered and is now in jail. This affair demonstrates the immense value of a constitutional monarch. By remaining above politics, the monarch retains the confidence of all the people, regardless of their ideology. When the chips are down, and democratic fractiousness threatens to tear society apart, the monarch can step in and throw the weight of his prestige behind the forces of law and order. That is precisely what King Juan Carlos did. On that day, he earned his pay for many a year. We Americans, who swear loyalty to a Constitution, have some difficulty understanding the system, but we cannot deny that it works.

Popular revolts
The next form of coup is the popular revolt. Popular resentment against the government boils over into street demonstrations which become riots. If enough people are angry with the government, they quickly realize one of the fundamental truths of the world: no government can function without the consent of the people. No military or police force, no matter how large or powerful, can maintain control over a population against its will. Having smarted under the whip for too long, the population goes wild in an orgy of rioting. This demonstrates that the government has lost all ability to govern. Lets face it, if you cant even keep peace in the streets, you don’t have a functioning government. The only option is to fold up the tent and let a new government take over. This is how the people of Haiti overthrew the hated Baby Doc Duvalier. The Haitians overcame their fear of the Tontons Macoutes, Duvalier’s murderous secret police, and overthrew his government. A similar set of circumstances led to the fall of the Shah of Iran, again in spite of Savak, the Shahs secret police. The Polish communist government of Edward Gierek was overthrown in a similar manner in 1970, despite the array of repressive measures available to a communist state.

These examples of successful popular revolts are the exceptions, not the rule. Civil unrest is the norm in many nations of the world and it boils into the streets with depressing frequency. In all three of the above-cited cases, (Haiti, Iran, and Poland), the leadership refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation until it was too late. The reason for such a callous attitude is the frequency of civil disorder and its usual lack of issue. Most of the time, the police crack down and the crowds disperse after venting their rage. There have been some 10,000 riots in the last forty years; about 100, or 1% of these, yielded a change of executive. Little wonder that political leaders seldom see civil disorder as a threat to their jobs.

Political coups
The next form of coup is the purely political coup. The Soviet Union and many communist states rely heavily on this form of governmental renewal. They are able to do so because a fundamental principle of any communist state is the maintenance of absolute party control over the military. Thus, the prospect of a coup involving the military is much less likely in communist states. Since there are also no true elections, the only means for replacing an ineffective leader is the political coup. This is normally carried out through a series of complex political intrigues, the goal of which is to create a new consensus against the current leadership and in favor of some new leader. The danger of this lies in the difficulty of hiding these intrigues from the leader and thwarting his subsequent countermoves. The 1964 ouster of Nikita Khrushchev illustrates the process. Khrushchev foolishly took a vacation in the south, giving the conspirators the opportunity to work openly in Moscow. Khrushchev threw away his last chance at retaining power when he failed to respond to warnings telephoned him by his loyalists. By the time he was ready to act, it was too late; the Brezhnev-Kosygin party had consolidated its political position within the Party hierarchy and Khrushchev’s ouster was complete.

Institutionalized coups
Here we pass into the forms of coup that are institutionalized. These are primarily the preserve of the Western democracies. These nations have developed a more organized and less disruptive way of sweeping out the cobwebs. Most nations in the West use a parliamentary democracy with a coalition government that exists only so long as it enjoys the confidence of the Parliament. Once it loses a formal vote of confidence, it must dissolve itself and organize a new coalition. The system used by the United States involves regularly scheduled elections to replace the government executives.

Factors that contribute to coups
Almost anything can contribute to the dissatisfaction that leads up to a coup. The Spanish colonel who raided the Cortes believed that democracy was rotting the moral core of Spain, and that military leadership was necessary to put Spain back in order. The Argentine generals who took over in the 1970s did so because they felt that the civilian government was impotent against the left-wing terrorism that was crippling the nation. Personal ambition can play a large part in coups; Napoleon’s coup against the Revolutionary government was not an expression of any particular social grievance, but merely the bold stroke of an ambitious man grasping for power.

The single largest factor in coups, though, is simple economics. When people’s stomachs grumble loudly enough, governments fall. Runaway inflation has been a common motivating factor in coups. In American politics, the performance of the economy plays a large role in every national election. A strong economy bodes well for the incumbents; a weak one gives the challengers a big boost. The real issue is not so much the total GNP as it is GNP growth. For example, the rapidly growing nations of Eastern Asia (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan) have enjoyed political stability as well. Their neighbors who have grown more slowly (Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia) have experienced more political instability.

For the purposes of Balance of Power I have chosen not to concentrate not on GNP growth, but instead on the growth of consumer spending per capita. Consumer spending is the amount of money that is left over to spend on the direct well-being of the population after military spending and investment is taken out of the GNP. It includes such things as food, clothing, and housing. Consumer spending is the only means by which the average citizen actually experiences the GNP. The government can announce all sorts of wonderful statistics, but such propaganda has far less credibility than the amount of bread on the table. Note that in some countries, the GNP is growing more slowly than the population, so that GNP per capita, and hence consumer spending per capita, is falling even though the GNP is growing.

The role of the superpowers
The superpowers are unable to prevent or control coups around the globe, but they are able to create and influence them. A variety of schemes are available to the superpower; their effect is referred to as destabilization. Efforts can be kept fairly sanitary, such as simply providing funds for the opponents of the regime. Superpowers can go much further than this if they wish. They can provide assistance to the more determined opponents of the regime. The KGB has been implicated in a number of assassinations associated with political intrigues in a variety of countries. The strongest influence that a superpower can exert comes in the moments of crisis. At these times a superpower with domestic influence can encourage one side or the other. The United States, for example, played a role in encouraging the coup against Diem, leader of South Vietnam, in 1963. Similarly, the American refusal to support the Shah of Iran in the last days of his rule was a major factor in his decision to throw in the towel.

Economic aid
Superpowers do have some options to support a regime. The most effective of these is simple economic aid. Inasmuch as poor economic performance is a major contributor to the unrest that leads up to coups, any aid that improves the economy will strengthen the regime. Unfortunately, there are many limits on the value of foreign aid. In the first place, foreign aid must actually reach its destination; many Third World nations are so hopelessly tangled in corruption that only a fraction of the foreign aid they receive reaches its intended destination. Second, political considerations often result in the foreign aid being used in a manner not likely to achieve the maximum improvement in the GNP. The vanity of the recipient-nations leadership, or the dictates of the giver, may result in the construction of a gradiose but useless dam, road, or factory.

Results of a coup
A coup has two primary aftereffects. The first and most obvious is the replacement of the old executive with a new one. This can mean very little or it can mean a great deal. Many African coups merely replace one tribal dictator with another. On the other hand, the popular coup against the Shah of Iran led to radical changes in Iranian society.

The second after-effect of a coup occurs only with irregular changes of executive. Such events erode the society’s confidence in, and respect for, its institutions. If Petty Tyrant #1 can march into the presidential palace, shoot the president, take the reins of power, and get away with it, why cant Petty Tyrant #2 do the same? And then how about Petty Tyrants #3, #4, and so on in an unending series?

Coups in Balance of Power
Balance of Power treats coups in a very simple-minded fashion: economic performance is the primary factor that determines the generation of coups. A secondary factor is the political leaning of the government: Extremist governments of either stripe are accorded a small amount of resistance to coups. Because economic performance plays so large a role in the determination of coups, I shall also present a summary of the economics computations used in Balance of Power. The first equations are:

Consumer Pressure is the degree to which the government feels compelled to increase consumer spending at the expense of the other two main sectors of the economy (investment and military spending). Government Popularity in Balance of Power normally falls between 1 and 20, with a value of 20 indicating a very popular government. These equations say that the government feels more pressure to increase consumer spending when its popularity falls.

Investment Pressure is the degree to which the government feels compelled to increase investment spending. This is normally a small pressure. The investment fraction is the fraction of the total GNP that is invested in the form of new roads, schools, factories, and the like. In Balance of Power, it is measured not from 0% to 100%, as one might expect, but from 0 to 256; this range is better suited to the peculiar arithmetic considerations of a digital computer using 16-bit words. A typical investment fraction would be 40, corresponding to about 15% of GNP.

The third economic factor used in calculating the incidence of coups is Military Pressure, computed with a more complex formula:


Now were getting messy. Military Pressure is, as you might expect, the amount of pressure the government feels to increase its military budget. Three factors contribute to Military Pressure. First comes the square root of the strength ratio between the insurgency and the government. If this number is large, then the insurgency is large and powerful, and the government had better strengthen its army. The second and third numbers are the Finlandization probabilities for each of the two superpowers. They measure the degree to which the government feels vulnerable to, and threatened by, each of the superpowers. Military spending is one way a government can increase its sense of security in such circumstances. One might argue that no minor power could seriously believe that it could defend itself against a superpower, but such is not the case. The Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega believes that by arming itself to the teeth, it will make the cost in blood of an American invasion too high for American planners to contemplate.

These three forms of pressure on the GNP budget are then brought together to determine how the GNP will be allocated:


At this point, the code gets very convoluted, involving some complicated convergence algorithms that I do not want to confuse you with. Besides, I have difficulty figuring out how to explain them in a non-programming way. The purpose of these calculations is to apply the three different forms of pressue (Consumer, Investment, and Military) to adjust the overall budget, which is divided into three sectors: consumer spending, investment spending, and military spending. 

This is not to say that my equations assume that the division of the GNP between the military, investment, and consumer sectors is decided upon by the government. The equations deal only in pressures operating on the society and how those pressures are resolved in a distribution among the three primary sectors (military, consumer, and investment). Whether that resolution is determined by a government minister, the marketplace, or by powerful bankers, is not the concern of the model. It is true that the model makes some strong assumptions about how different societies will react to military threats and the need for investment. In the absence of usable data on national differences of this kind, I opted for a “one size fits all” model.

With the GNP model divided between the sectors, we are ready to calculate the change in GNP:


The first equation is simple enough - it directly calculates the consumer spending per capita. The second is a little strange. It creates a virtual GNP that will be used for computational purposes but is not identical to the true GNP. Much of it is lost in the third equation, which makes the GNP grow by the portion of the economy that is invested in the future. Notice, though, that any investment fraction less than 30 (about 12% of the GNP) will result in negative growth of the economy. This is based on some simple empirical data I obtained on growth rates of GNPs and investment fractions. I plotted them against each other and found a roughly linear relationship with slope and intercept corresponding to the coefficients that are used in the third equation. This, apparently, measures the average depreciation of capital assets. In other words, if you dont invest at least 12% of your GNP each year, your roads, factories, schools, and so on will wear out faster than you can replace them, and your GNP will diminish.

Now we are ready to calculate the new consumer spending with the equation:


And at last we are ready to calculate the percentage by which consumer spending per capita has grown:

Now we are able to calculate this years government popularity. The equation is simply:

Now I must explain each of the terms in this last formula. The first term, Government Popularity, simply says that the government starts off with the popularity it had last year and works from there. This takes into account the idea of loyalty: People who like the government will not turn on it overnight without strong incentives. In short, the government does not start with a clean slate each year; a good job last year will generate popular goodwill that will carry over into the next year.

The second term, Improvement, is the critically important economic term. If the government achieved an improvement in consumer spending per capita, the average citizens life is better and the governments popularity is increased. If, on the other hand, consumer spending per capita went down, then improvement will be a negative number and the government’s popularity will fall.

The third term, using Government Wing, presents one of the most debatable assertions in the entire model. It declares that a governments popularity will increase in proportion to its radical-ness. Remember, extreme left-wing governments will have Government Wing equal to up to -128, while governments with an extremely right-wing orientation will have Government Wing equal to +128, and Government Wing for centrist governments will be 0. Thus, the radical governments of either wing will get a one-point popularity bonus solely because they are so radical. I added this term to reflect two forces: the tendency of radical governments to suppress dissent, and the divisiveness that so often cripples centrist governments. Fortunately, the effect is small, only appearing as a single point for truly extremist governments.

The last term is simple in appearance but carries a great deal of baggage in the way of assumptions. I subtract 3 from the governments popularity. This we might call the natural expectation of the masses. The idea behind this term is that people expect economic growth. In fact, people expect a 3% growth rate in consumer spending per capita. If the government achieves that, they are satisfied. Not pleased, mind you, just satisfied. If, however, the government falls shorts of the expected 3% growth rate, then they are dissatisfied, even if the growth was still positive. How did I determine this magic number? Did I spend hours in the library compiling economic statistics and cross-checking them against expressions of political discontent? No! I arrived at it by experiment. I found that 2% was so low that people were always happy with their governments and there were never any coups in the game. That was too boring. On the other hand, 4% made it impossible for any government to survive the game, so that was too high. That left 3% as the happy medium that generated enough coups to make life interesting but not hopeless. If only the real world were as manageable as a game design...

So now we have calculated the new popularity of the government. The next task is to determine if a coup is triggered. This is simplicity itself:


Normally, neither superpower will be engaging in destabilization, so this IF-statement boils down to the simple question, Is Government Popularity less than zero? If, however, one or both superpowers is indeed carrying out a program of destabilization, it will express itself as a positive number between 1 and 5, corresponding to the 5 levels of destabilization allowed in the window brought up by selecting Destabilization from the Make Policy menu. Thus, in the unlikely event that both superpowers were exerting maximum destabilization effort, the government would fall if its popularity were less than 10.

If a coup takes place, a number of changes result. As with the insurgency, the Government Wing is reversed, so that the left-wingers are replaced by right-wingers, and vice versa. The new government starts off with a fresh load of popularity, because people everywhere let their hopes exceed their judgment.

On the other hand, the government’s resistance to insurgency is weakened; its soldiers don’t fight as well when they don’t know for whom they are fighting.

The other result of a coup involves the governments relationship to the superpowers.


The effect of this equation is to measure the ideological distance that the new government moved toward or away from the ideological stance of the superpower. If it moved closer to the superpower, then diplomatic relations between the two countries are improved; conversely, if it moved farther away, then diplomatic relations are worsened.

And that is how the details of coups are handled in Balance of Power.

Scorecard: Coups, 1948 - 1977
The World Handbook of Political and Social Indicators (Taylor and Jodice 1983) presents a compendium of political events during the thirty years from 1948 to 1977. The following is a digest of some of the more interesting tidbits gleaned from that source.

The authors define four types of events that fall within the purview of this chapter: regular executive transfers, irregular executive transfers, unsuccessful regular executive transfers, and unsuccessful irregular executive transfers. An irregular executive transfer is the removal and replacement of the incumbent national executive outside the conventional procedures for transferring formal power. A regular executive transfer is the same process carried out through legal or conventional procedures. Thus, we normally think of an irregular executive transfer as a coup, but in the world of Balance of Power, any form of executive transfer is treated as a coup.

The term ‘unsuccessful regular executive transfer’ may perplex readers unfamiliar with parliamentary democracy. In such a system, a government (actually, not the entire government but the executive echelon of the government) operates only with the confidence of the Parliament. If for any reason the government is unable to survive a vote of confidence in the Parliament, the government is declared dissolved, which means that a new government must be formed. During the period of forming a new government, an out-of-power faction may make a legal attempt to form a majority government. If this attempt fails, it is considered to be an unsuccessful regular executive transfer.

The authors report a total of 238 irregular executive transfers during their sample period versus 304 unsuccessful irregular executive transfers. In other words, about 44% of all coup attempts were successful. Thats better than twice the success rate of insurgency. Regular executive transfers are even more impressive: 1645 successful regular executive transfers against 409 unsuccessful ones. Thats a success rate of 80%!

There is an interesting and reassuring relationship here. The most violent and brutal form of political change - insurgency - has obtained a success rate in the last forty years of only 20%; the next most brutal form, the irregular executive transfer, achieved a 44% success rate, while the most civilized form of political change, the regular executive transfer, enjoyed a success rate of 80%. Those who fear the world is descending into barbarism take note.

For optimists and pessimists alike, another aspect of the data is bad news: there has been no clear secular trend in the incidence of coups, successful or unsuccessful. year in and year out, coups seem to march along with depressing regularity, neither increasing nor decreasing in frequency.

Some countries have set records for the number of coups they have undergone. Top honors are shared by Bolivia, with 18 unsuccessful coups and 6 successful ones, and Syria, with 12 unsuccessful coups and 12 successful ones. Conspirators take note! Syria is a much friendlier place for a coup than Bolivia. Until Hafiz Assad took over in the 1970s, Syria was one of the most politically active nations in the world. In addition to its 24 irregular executive transfers (successful and unsuccessful), Syria has had more regular executive transfers (48) than any other nation in the world. It ranks sixth in unsuccessful regular executive transfers (with 24), and, believe it or not, 16th in national elections - with 15 - the same number as the United States has had in the same period. Hafiz Assad changed all that and brought stability to Syrian politics. This is not so bad as it might seem: During the sample period, before Hassad assumed power, Syria suffered nearly 2,000 deaths from political violence and 28 assassinations.

In the field of national elections, the Swiss hold the record with 43 elections, with France coming in second with 26. Would you believe that Algeria has had more national elections (18) than the United States (15)? Or that the Soviet Union has had more national elections (7) than Hong Kong (1)?

It should come as no surprise that France and Italy are the record-holders for unsuccessful regular executive transfers, with 61 and 41 respectively. However, most of the French instabilities arose during the fifties, and most of the Italian turbulence came in the sixties.

Those who like to think of Western democracy as the proper role-models for governmental change for the Third World nations will cringe upon discovering that, of the top ten countries in the category of regular executive transfers, only Greece can be called a Western democracy. The other countries with the most regular executive transfers are mostly in the Middle East. France is 11th with 29 regular executive changes. And what do the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, China, Rumania, Kuwait, Uganda, Malawi, and the Philippines all have in common? They all have had more regular executive transfers than the United States, which has had only 6 such events in the thirty-year period. How are we to interpret this? One might argue that the infrequency of American regular executive transfers is an indication of stability, not lawlessness. Certainly one cannot claim that the number of elections or regular executive transfers is a measure of the quality of democracy.

History of Coups
The history of coups is not as long as that of insurgency. The early civilizations werent civilized enough to accept the notion that power could be transferred without violence. Throughout much of history, the transfer of power from one executive to another was a violent and bloody process that took a large toll of all bystanders, innocent or otherwise. Power struggles of this nature were so disruptive that most civilizations developed a deep-seated fear of them. From this fear rose a rich collection of values about the means by which a king should be replaced with minimal disruption to society. The exclamation, Long live the king! was not an altruistic expression of good wishes for the royalty; the longer the king lived, the lower the chance of a bloody dynamic struggle. Similarly, the birth of a male heir to the throne was always received by the commoners with great joy. The eldest male heir was universally regarded as having an unimpeachable claim to the throne upon the death of his father; such certainty of succession greatly reduced the likelihood of dynastic wars upon the death of the father. On the other hand, people dreaded the existence of multiple male heirs: Additional heirs injected an element of uncertainty into the succession that was all too easily exploited by ambitious siblings to generate bloody battles. The Turks came to accept the notion that royal siblings must ruthlessly murder each other until one emerged victorious.

The first truly modern coup of which I am aware came from Roman history. Julius Caesar did not pull off the first military coup, but his crossing of the Rubicon and subsequent entry into Rome is certainly the most famous of early coups. Moreover, it set precedence and created the model for future Roman transfers of power.

The Dark Ages were too primitive a time to allow much in the way of coup activity. Here is how King Sigibert of the Franks was removed from office in 575 CE:

Two young men who had been suborned by Queen Fredegund then came up to Sigibert, carrying strong knives, which are commonly called scramasaxes, and which they had smeared with poison. They pretended that they had something to discuss with him, but they struck him on both sides. He gave a loud cry and fell to the ground. He died soon afterwards.

(Lewis Thorpe, trans., History of the Franks: Gregory of Tours)

The history of these times is twisted chronicle of murder and wild anarchy. The concept of a coup just doesnt seem to work in this environment. It was about as appropriate as raising a point of parliamentary procedure in a barroom brawl.

By the time of William the Conqueror, things had progressed far enough that we can once again talk about transfers of executive power as opposed to bloody free-for-alls. The next seven hundred years were dominated by the development of the king-state relationship. Coups revolved around dynastic considerations. The developing rules for dynastic succession worked most of the time, but when they failed, a major civil war such as the English Wars of the Roses ensued.

The central rules of dynastic succession might be summarized as follows: When a king dies, the throne goes to his eldest legitimate son. If that son is not yet old enough to rule (generally less than 18 years old), then a regent is chosen to rule in the name of the child-king until he reaches his majority. The regent is usually a close relative, such as an uncle. If no son is available, things get sticky. 

In most cases, daughters could not inherit a title, but there were occasional exceptions, such as Queen Elizabeth. The fact that a daughter is married could be a positive or negative factor. If no acceptable child is available, then perhaps a brother of the dead king can be given the crown. Failing in all these options, the society is forced to fall back on weak claims to the throne, of which there are always many. Distant relatives come out of the woodwork to lay their claim. Foreign royalty steps forward with obscure claims (William the Conqueror had a tenuous claim to the throne of England, which claim was the pretext for his invasion.) The ambiguity of all these claims insures that the matter will be resolved by that most terrible arbiter of mens fates: Mars.

The French Revolution signaled the end of dynastic change of executive. With the collapse of the old order came new ways of making governmental change. Times of change are also times of instability. In the early years of the United States of America, Aaron Burr led an effort that could be called an attempted coup. Europe experienced popular uprisings in 1830, 1848, and 1870. It seems that nations need a generation or two of democracy before their governments require a resistance to coups. Thus, French democracy did not shake free of its vulnerability until the early twentieth century, and German democracy began in 1920 and did not stabilize until 1960.

The Philippine Coup, February 1986
The most recent and dramatic coup was the removal of President Ferdinand Marcos by Corazon Aquino. The turbulent events surrounding this coup underscore the complexity and ambiguity inherent in all coup activity. Many people have difficulty deciding whether it was a revolution or a coup. According to the terms of Balance of Power, it was definitely a coup, but the sequence of events was quite complicated. Let’s walk through them.

Marcos initiated events with his announcement of a snap election. He obviously thought that he would easily win this election, but as the campaign progressed it became apparent that considerable electoral fraud would be necessary to win. The election that should have confirmed his leadership only served to disprove it. The large incidence of fraud convinced many Filipinos that Marcos had, in truth, lost. The coup proper began in the days immediately after the election. As more and more stories of fraud spread, large groups of disaffected citizens demonstrated their anger in the streets. This kept the heat on. It created a new social contract between Filipinos, a contract of opposition to the Marcos regime which was now commonly perceived as illegitimate. Most importantly, it smoked out Marcos and stampeded him into making the crucial mistake that the opposition needed.

On February 22, Marcos had a group of soldiers arrested in the belief that they were part of a plot against him. They were not, but the action alarmed the man who turned out to be the key player: Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. Enrile had helped establish the Reformed the Armed Forces Movement, a group of about 100 professional military men who were disenchanted with the growing politicization of the Filipino armed forces. Although the group had never contemplated sedition, its very existence during such sensitive times could easily have been construed as a threat to Marcos, so when Enrile heard of the arrests he concluded that he was also a target. In effect, the arrests flushed Enrile out of a quiet opposition and into a stance of open defiance. He resigned his position as Defense Minister, recruited General Fidel Ramos, and with the other members of the group set up a defensive position not far from the presidential palace.

This was open rebellion. It was the first clear, continued, steady act of outright defiance of Marcos authority. It served as the vital focal point, the locus of crystallization for the popular revolt against Marcos. Any coup or rebellion of this nature always faces a crisis of crystallization: Who will take the first step? Who will make himself the locus of discontent and the target for retribution? Many coups fail because no hero (or martyr) can be found to place himself in the crosshairs of the rebellion. The irony is that Marcos forced Enriles hand and precipitated him into that regime-shattering move.

The crystallization was rapid. Thousands upon thousands of Filipinos showed up at the defensive compound to protect the rebels from military action with the shield of their own vulnerability. Other military units began to rally around the standard they had raised. The complete disintegration of Marcos authority took less than 72 hours. By Tuesday evening, February 25, Marcos had fled.

The American role in all this was greater than most people, imbued with images of sign-waving Filipinos, would believe possible. The Americans intervened diplomatically at several crucial points. The first American contribution was the steady pressure on the Marcos regime that goaded him into calling elections to demonstrate his mandate. The second contribution was the monitoring of the elections that helped expose considerable fraud and, more importantly, add credibility to the many other accusations of fraud. Two absolutely crucial moves were made during the rebellion crisis. On Monday, February 24th, General Fabian Ver, loyal to Marcos, prepared a military attack against the rebels. The White House announced that American military aid to the Philippines would be cut off if such an attack took place. More pointedly, the National Security Council advised General Ver that he would forfeit any hope of American protection if he ordered the attack. The attack was canceled. The second crucial move was made by U.S. Senator Paul Laxalt in telephone conversations with Marcos. Laxalt advised Marcos to give up the hopeless struggle. This was the last blow for Marcos, who trusted Laxalt and knew that his words reflected the view of President Reagan. Marcos had lost the support of his people and now he had lost the support of the United States. He began making arrangements to leave.

The Philippine coup involved a complex mix of many elements. There was a democratic election, an election that, in the eyes of the Philippine people, should have awarded victory to Corazon Aquino. There was a popular nonviolent revolt against Marcos, but this by itself might not have toppled him. There was also a military rebellion, but it resulted in almost no fighting and no deaths. There was also the diplomatic intervention of the United States. Taken singly, none of these forces could have toppled Marcos so quickly. Taken together, they swept him out of office. Was it a coup, a popular rebellion, or a military revolt? Its hard to say - none of these terms capture the complex events of February 1986. Balance of Power takes the whole confusing mess and packs it into a neat little box labeled “coup d’etat”. 

Coups around the world
Every culture has its rituals associated with the transfer of power from one executive to another. Because this transfer is so vital to the stability of society, the entire process is invested with a great deal of ritual. For example, here in the United States we have the presidential nominating convention with its straw hats, its signs and banners, and its arcane voting process always prefaced with, “The great state of ____________ casts its vote for….”

In Latin America, one of the procedures called is called the pronunciamento. This is a military coup carried out by the entire officer corps against the government. It begins with a polling of each officer for their views, then a commitment by all to each other. With these preliminaries out of the way, the coup can be carried out with a clear conscience.

A German version of the military coup is called a putsch. Hitler tried one in 1923 and succeeded only in killing 19 people and landing himself in jail. The German generals tried one against Hitler in 1944 and succeeded only in getting several hundred of their faction murdered. A variety of other putsches took place in the early 1920s; none was successful.

The role of the military in coups
Armies are for fighting wars, right? That may be true in this country, but in most countries of the world, the army exists almost exclusively for dealing with internal enemies. Very few armies of this world have any capability for operating beyond their national boundaries. Of all the armies of the world, only the armed forces of the USA and the USSR have any significant capability for operations outside their base territories. For example, the United States Marines are the world’s largest expeditionary force (designed for operations anywhere in the world) with nearly 200,000 troops, while the analogous Soviet force has only 12,000 troops. And these are the forces of the superpowers!

In most Third World countries, the primary function of the army is to protect the government from challenges to its authority. The problem is, what happens when the challenge comes from within the army?

This delicate problem first arose a couple of thousand years ago. Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and took control of the Roman government. Actually, the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon wasnt half so important as the fact that several legions crossed the Rubicon with him. Caesar was able to get away with it because the troops were more loyal to him than to the government. In a single stroke, Caesar destroyed the already shaky Roman democracy and set the pattern for Roman changes of executive. With the passage of time, the precedent that Caesar set was expanded. Within a few hundred years, the Praetorian Guards had become the arbiter of Roman succession. Any emperor who lost their favor, they killed. At first, new emperors were chosen with some consideration for the sensibilities of the other factions of the Roman government, but with time even the pretense of legality was dispensed with.

Ever since then, political leaders have struggled with the problem of controlling their military forces. A variety of solutions have been tried. During the Dark Ages, the military and the government had no problems getting along because they were the same thing. Military power defined political power; the king was simply the most powerful warlord. Later, the military was controlled by an aristocracy that swore loyalty to the king. This system worked most of the time, but there were occasional lapses, such as the Decembrist plot against the Tsar of Russia in 1825.

The United States and the Soviet Union have developed the most effective solution to the problem. The American solution is to inculcate a profound reverence among the officers for the Constitution. This can only work with a highly educated officer corps and a stable democracy, but since such conditions obtain in this society, the strategy is effective. There is no credible possibility of a military coup in the United States.

The Soviet solution is radically different. The armed forces are under close supervision by the Party. Ever military unit has two commanders: its normal military commander, and its politrabochiy, a political officer who is a member of the Communist Party and whose loyalty is to the Party, not the Army. There are politrabochiy at all levels of the armed forces, right down to the company level. The politrabochiy is not trained as an officer and is promoted by the Party, not the Army. Ostensibly, the function of the politrabochiy is to provide political indoctrination to the men in the unit. His real purpose is to keep an eye on the unit to make certain that any anti-Party grumblings are dealt with quickly. His authority is superior to that of the commander of the unit.

Few Third World nations have the right conditions to use either the American or the Soviet technique. Therefore, they must accept the likelihood that the troops will come out of the barracks and throw out the current leaders. Only about 10% of all post-war coup attempts have not involved the military in some fashion, and the success rate of coups not involving the military is only about 60% that of coups involving the military.

Four systems of government
It can be instructive to compare the experience of different political systems in replacing their chief executives during periods of relative calm. I have chosen four systems to compare: Ancient Rome, Medieval England, Imperial Russia, and the United States of America. For each system I have chosen a period free from foreign invasion or other external forces that exerted a major influence on questions of succession.

The Roman period extends from 27 B.C. to 192 A.D., a duration of 219 years. During this time, 17 emperors reigned. Of these, 8 died in political violence. The average reign was 13 years.

The English period begins in 1377 and ends in 1603, for a total of 226 years. This was a difficult time for England, for it endured the Hundred Years War, the Wars of the Roses, a major peasants revolt, and some religious strife associated with the formation of the new Anglican Church. Nevertheless, during this period, 13 monarchs reigned, and only 2 died in political violence. The average monarch reigned for 17 years.

The Russian period comprises the first 212 years of the Romanov dynasty, beginning in 1613 and ending in 1825. This period saw 14 Tsars, 3 of whom died or were forcibly removed from office. The average member of this dynasty held power for 15 years.

The American period covers the entirety of our history as an independent state, 210 years. During this time, we have had 40 Presidents, 3 of whom have died in political violence. Most Presidents enjoyed only a single term in office; the average incumbency was only 5 1/2 years in duration.

What is surprising about these four systems is their similarity. Except for the Romans, each system suffered two or three violent removals from office. Except for the Americans, the average reign in each system was about 15 years in duration. Considering that this small collection spans two thousand years of history and four very different political systems and cultures, these similarities are striking.