This House believes launching a military coup against a democratic government can be justified

Coups are a regular occurrence around the world. The most recent happened in May 2014 when the Thai army overthrew the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. From 1945 to 2006 there were 261 coups of all descriptions.1 A coup can be defined simply as “a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a governmment”.2 This can mean that the seizure of power is by the people after a protest as in Ukraine but much more often this is done by someone with military or police forces at their disposal. It is such cases which will be looked at here.

This debate will only be looking at democratic governments as the dynamics of a coup against an autocratic government are totally different. Not only is the moral element much more blurred but it has been argued by Thyne and Powell that a coup against such an autocratic government actually speeds the process of democratization as the incoming government needs legitimacy; something a democratic election can provide.3

This debate is written shortly after the 2014 coup in Thailand but it is not specifically about that coup this because it has not fully played out at the time of writing so it is difficult to know precisely what the intentions of the coup leaders are. Secondly it is quite a hard coup to justify because it is clearly not a neutral action; one side had been calling for the coup to take place. And Thailand has had a long line of coups making it doubtful that the action is simply to fix a broken political system or that it will be a success if it is tried.

Note: It is unlikely that in any individual coup that all the prop points will be the case at once so please remember the context is vital if arguing about a specific coup. The opposition arguments are much more likely to all be true. For a more specific debate see the Debatabase debate 'This House believes the Egyptian army was right to depose Morsi'

1Marinov, Nikolay, and Goemans, Hein, 'Coups and Democracy', British Journal of Political Science, 2013,, p.2

3Thyne, Clayton L., and Powell, Jonathan M., 'Coup d’état or Coup d'Autocracy? How Coups Impact Democratization, 1950–2008', Foreign Policy Analysis, 16 April 2014,


Necessary to restore peace to the country

The clearest, and most common, reason for the military stepping in is to restore peace to the country. When the stakes are so high, power through control of government, the ability to distribute resources, it is something well worth fighting for. The result can be that democracies become unstable and violent with election campaigns particular flashpoints. The runup to the Thai elections in 2014 shortly before the coup left 10 dead and 600 injured1 with no sign of stability returning after the flawed elections General Prayuth Chan-ocha the head of the army said the coup was necessary “in order for the country to return to normality quickly, and for society to love and be at peace again.”2 When there violence creating violence it is the military's role to step in the prevent such instability.

1Wilkinson, Laura, 'Thailand elections: Violent clashes in Bangkok over disputed poll', The Independent, 2 February 2014,

2Hodal, Kate, 'Coup needed for Thailand 'to love and be at peace again' – army chief', The Guardian, 23 May 2014,


In a country that is so polarised that there is violence at elections the chances are the military is not neutral. In Thailand the royalists had been calling for military intervention because they know it is unlikely they will win an election. A coup cannot therefore be considered to be likely to end violence; Egypt is a case in point as there have been more than 3,200 deaths in the 7 months after the coup against President Morsi.1

1'More than 3,200 Egyptians killed since coup', Middle East Monitor, 9 April 2014,

A technocratic government is needed to prevent corruption

Democracy does not mean that a country is not corrupt, or that the political leadership is not corrupt. There are many countries where democratic elections stand side by side with a large amount of corruption; Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq countries that have recently had elections following western intervention are ranked 175, 172, and 171 out of 177 on the corruption perceptions index. Even countries with long established democracies can be perceived as being corrupt, India is 94th.1 If the political class is incapable of reforming itself it may be necessary for another actor to do it for them.

There have been several coups in which the military has taken power in order to reform the political system before handing over to a civilian government at elections; Turkey in 1960, Portugal in 1974, and the relatively recent coup in Bangladesh in 2007.2

1Transparency International, 'Corruptions Perceptions Index 2013',

2Marinov, Nikolay, and Goemans, Hein, 'Coups and Democracy', British Journal of Political Science, 2013,, p.5


In a corrupt system the military is likely to be corrupt too. It will have its own sectional interest; getting as much funds for itself, or hyping possible threats. The military interest can often lead to far worse things than corruption – such as wars.1 In countries where the military is powerful it is likely to have large private interests too; in Egypt the military's holdings in the economy is estimated at anywhere from 5 to 60% of GDP though the military itself says its revenue from its private businesses is only 1% this is still a large interest.2

1Snyder, Jack, Myths of Empire, Cornell University Press, 1991

2Hauslohner, Abigail, 'Egypt's 'Military Inc' expands its control of the economy', Guardian Weekly, 18 March 2014,

A neutral party

Democracies can turn into an intractable conflict between two political parties with neither side ruling in their national interest but simply using power in an attempt to defeat the other side. Bangladesh is a good example of this as there are two main parties; the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Neither are willing to talk to the other, the competition has at times been violent and attempts to create neutral caretaker governments are scotched by one side or the other as occurred at the start of 2014.1 The 2007 coup resulted in the arrests of the leaders of both parties along with a major anti corruption drive.2 Unfortunately this did not prevent Bangladesh quickly falling into the same two party system with the same parties and leaders once civilian rule was restored.

1Budhwar, Kailash 'Bangladesh elections: The 'battling begums'', Al Jazeera, 4 January 2014,

2Voice of America, 'Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Arrested',, 27 October 2009,


A military government may well be as riven by factionalism and division as the system which it replaces. The main interests of the military is often simply to maintain or increase the position of the military, this makes it likely there will be disagreement on other issues including over how quickly to return to democratic government. The military will often opt to return to barracks rather than have such splits become too deep “Military regimes thus contain the seeds of their own destruction” as there is almost bound to be a split into factions at some point when governing a country.1

1Geddes, Barbara, 'What do we know about democratization after twenty years?', Annual Review of Political Science, Vol.2, 1999, pp.115-144,, p.131

Restoring democracy

A coup that is against an elected government that is however becoming increasingly anti democratic is justified. When an elected government is increasingly concentrating power in its own hands, and particularly if elections are postponed then it is necessary for the military to step in to ensure democracy continues to function. From 1991-2006 31 of 43 coups resulted in an election within five years so far from damaging democracy were often restoring it.1

1Marinov, Nikolay, and Goemans, Hein, 'Coups and Democracy', British Journal of Political Science, 2013,, p.2 


The argument that the military is restoring democracy from a democracy makes no sense. Only once a democracy has been turned into an autocracy can it be said to be restoring democracy. So long as the system is still democratic then there should be constitutional ways to replace an increasingly authoritarian government; elections, vote of no confidence, or the judiciary.

The response must be democratic

It is never appropriate to overthrow a democratically elected government which the people have chosen. The government is legitimised by being the choice of the people, a coup is by definition not legitimate in such a way. The response to a government that has lost the trust of the electorate, unable to prevent violence, or is corrupt, is to hold an election. In the worst case and an elected government is using its power as a government to manipulate any election then the responsibility is with the judiciary to convict a government which is responsible for such a


Elections do not always return a government that has true popular support; the system may be gerrymandered so it is much easier for one party to win seats. Additionally in many democracies there is a large number of people who don't vote so even a party that is elected may not have a true mandate. If the abstaining majority want a different government should the military not respect their democratic wish?

A coup makes it more difficult to trust in democracy

Military intervention damages trust in democracy even if the intent of the coup is to return to democratic rule as quickly as possible. There are two ways in which democracy is damaged. The first is that it undermines the point of majority rule if the military may just step in and take over if they don't like the result. Secondly if a democratic government is making a mess of ruling and the military steps in to clean things up then this may create an impression that they will do so again, so absolving politicians to clean up their own act.

This may well be what happens in Thailand. Since the end of military rule in 1973 Thailand has now had seven coups; 1976, 77, 81, 86, 91, 2007 and 2014.1 In the 2007 and 2014 coups the government being overthrown was very popular; in 2005 Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party won 60.7% of the vote while in 2011 his sister won 48.41% if the military simply steps in after a few years of rule by a clearly elected majority then what is the point in voting? Already the middle class supporters of a coup argue that elections do not mean democracy to justify military intervention thus undermining the concept of democracy.2

1Winichakul, Thongchai, 'Toppling Democracy', Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol.38, No.1, February 2008, pp.11-37,, p.15

2Ibid, p.27


Military intervention is most likely to happen only when trust in democracy has already been damaged. In Thailand democracy was already distrusted due to corruption and vote buying, the military acted because of that distrust. When intervention is to clean up corruption and create greater separation of powers the coup may actually improve trust in democracy. 

The army is not the best institution to run a country

If the country is in trouble is the army the best placed to take over and manage the country better than it has been in the past? This may plausibly be true if the reason democracy is failing is a large scale insurgency or near civil war but in almost every other case it is not the best institution. The army is trained to fight not to govern. The generals who take over top positions are used to running a bureaucracy that has to respond to politicians, not one that has to respond to the people.

Politicians may be corrupt, venal, or unpopular but at the least they are open about what they stand for. They have a manifesto and a clear ideology which if the people don't agree with they wont be voted for. This is not the case with generals; the chances are they have a bureaucratic desire to maintain the power and funding for the military but otherwise there is likely to be little known about their politics.

Finally for those who are being overthrown the electorate has had a chance to investigate their policies, their past, to question their views and catch the candidate out when they are not consistent. The candidate came through an electoral test and media grilling. When there is a coup there is no such chance to determine if the coup leader is the right man for the job.


Whether or not the head of the army is the right man to run the country is immaterial as he will be passing on to another administration quickly. This will either be a temporary civilian administration in which top technocrats are brought in or it will be as a result of new elections. If a military man is still in power after an election, as with Sisi in Egypt, then they have come through the same test as a politician would have done.


Budhwar, Kailash 'Bangladesh elections: The 'battling begums'', Al Jazeera, 4 January 2014,

Geddes, Barbara, 'What do we know about democratization after twenty years?', Annual Review of Political Science, Vol.2, 1999, pp.115-144,

Hodal, Kate, 'Coup needed for Thailand 'to love and be at peace again' – army chief', The Guardian, 23 May 2014,

Marinov, Nikolay, and Goemans, Hein, 'Coups and Democracy', British Journal of Political Science, 2013,

'More than 3,200 Egyptians killed since coup', Middle East Monitor, 9 April 2014,

'coup', Oxford Dictionaries,

Snyder, Jack, Myths of Empire, Cornell University Press, 1991

Thyne, Clayton L., and Powell, Jonathan M., 'Coup d’état or Coup d'Autocracy? How Coups Impact Democratization, 1950–2008', Foreign Policy Analysis, 16 April 2014,

Transparency International, 'Corruptions Perceptions Index 2013',

Voice of America, 'Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Arrested',, 27 October 2009,

Wilkinson, Laura, 'Thailand elections: Violent clashes in Bangkok over disputed poll', The Independent, 2 February 2014,

Winichakul, Thongchai, 'Toppling Democracy', Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol.38, No.1, February 2008, pp.11-37,