What Makes a Coup Succeed? Confidence, Consensus and a Sense of Inevitability

What Makes a Coup Succeed? Confidence, Consensus and a Sense of Inevitability

To understand what makes a coup succeed, as recently happened in Sudan and Algeria, or fail, as it did this week in Venezuela, it helps to consider the strange events in Libya a half-century ago.

For much of 1969, the county was filled with rumors of an imminent coup. In September, a handful of military vehicles rolled up to government offices and communication centers, and a terse statement announced the end of Libya’s decrepit monarchy.

Army units around the country, assuming that military chiefs were leading the coup and expecting them to show up at any moment, bloodlessly secured the rest of Libya. Foreign powers quickly recognized the new government. Nobody bothered to check who was leading the takeover.

A week later, an unknown 27-year-old army signal corps lieutenant announced that he and a few dozen low-level officers had in fact staged the coup. His name was Muammar el-Qaddafi.

If Libyans felt tricked, it was too late. Dislodging the officers would require a critical mass of Libya’s power brokers, citizens and foreign allies to come together against the new rulers, something they hadn’t managed even against the unpopular monarchy.

Mr. el-Qaddafi held power for 42 years.

This week in Venezuela, the opposition leader Juan Guaidó struggled to create that sense of inevitability for his plan to oust the president, Nicolás Maduro, but the military backing he called for never emerged.

His failure, alongside the success of recent movements to oust unpopular leaders in Algeria and Sudan, underscores the dynamics that typically make a coup succeed or fail. A historic lull in coups and revolutions appears to be ending, making these dynamics increasingly consequential well beyond Venezuela.

We tend to think of coups as driven by angry protesters or rogue officers. But, in practice, they are almost always brought about by the country’s dominant political, military and business elite.

Those power brokers, after all, have the final say over whether a leader stays or goes. But they can only remove a leader if they act together — making any coup what Naunihal Singh, a leader scholar of coups, called a “coordination game.”

In Libya, Mr. el-Qaddafi was able to set off the political equivalent of a bank run, with much of Libya joining his takeover, because the government’s fall was widely assumed as imminent.

That sense of inevitability meant that each Libyan official assumed that the coup would succeed and that the new government would have wide backing, so they better go along.

Mr. Guaidó has been trying to cultivate a similar sense of consensus and inevitability among Venezuela’s power brokers.

Some of Mr. Guaidó’s failures have been tactical, such as issuing his call to action on Twitter, Mr. Singh said. Coup leaders traditionally favor national TV and radio stations because seizing them is a way to convince the country that they have already taken control.

Mr. Guaidó has also called on military leaders to join him, drawing attention to his lack of support.

“You don’t say ‘We can win if only we have your support.’ What you say is ‘We’ve already won,’” Mr. Singh said. “By making it seem like you’ve already succeeded, you get the support necessary to succeed.”

Turkey’s debacle underscored that a coup is less a military operation than a collective action problem.

The elites who determine a coup’s outcome are typically too numerous and dispersed to communicate directly. And they are risk-averse. The coup leaders’ task is to persuade each elite that all the others will join in, spurring them to move in unison.

This often means marshaling protesters and foreign governments to the cause, creating the appearance of consensus.

That is why Venezuela’s power struggle is partly playing out over a seemingly technical issue: Mr. Guaidó’s claim to be the legitimate president.

A leader’s legitimacy works like modern currencies. The paper itself has value only because consumers treat it as having value. Likewise, a leader is legitimate only as long as his country’s citizens and institutions treat him as legitimate.

If enough Venezuelan citizens and institutions are swayed to treat Mr. Maduro as no longer legitimate, then he will cease to be legitimate in practice.

But a critical mass still treat him as legitimate, if only passively. Venezuela itself is a case in point: Even as runaway inflation has rendered its currency near valueless, citizens continue to use it.

Mr. Guaidó’s challenge may be that he is trying to solve two problems at once. He is trying to use hints of elite defection from Mr. Maduro’s government to spur a wider popular uprising. And he is trying to use protests to encourage more elite defections.

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