2019年11月15日 星期五

The Interpreter: It's a ...Coupvolution?

The revolution/coup gray zone, and why so many countries are in it
The New York Times

November 15, 2019

Welcome to The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.

On our minds: The difference between a coup and a revolution when the military is the strongest institution left standing.

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It's a… Coupvolution?

Opposition leaders and supporters celebrating the resignation of President Evo Morales of Bolivia.Manuel Claure/Reuters

We've been thinking a lot this week about uprisings, coups, revolutions — and the blurry lines between the three. That's partly because we've been writing about South America, including the mass protests in Chile, the resignation of President Evo Morales of Bolivia after pressure from the military, and the unique political role that militaries play across the continent.

The Bolivian case in particular has stirred debate over whether Morales's ouster was a coup, a revolution, or something else. Max dug into the details of that particular situation in his article this week, but we've also been thinking more broadly about why so many countries have ended up in the murky zone between popular uprising and military coup: Bolivia, Venezuela, Egypt, Sudan, Zimbabwe — the list goes on.

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As Max's article points out, the difference between the two is often very much in the eye of the beholder. But one rough rule of thumb is that to be seen positively — as a legitimate revolution rather than an illegitimate coup — the handover needs to have both popular support and validation from legitimate institutions.

The best-case scenario is for public protests to be followed by something along the lines of impeachment or a no-confidence vote in Parliament — removal via previously agreed-upon rules, enacted by the appropriate authorities. If that's not an option, the next-best category is if multiple institutions that are seen as legitimate all agree that it's time for the leader to go, particularly if it seems nonpartisan: a court finding a leader unfit for office, and his own party calling for him to step down, for instance.

That's where we get to a big problem.

The longer a country has been governed by a populist or autocratic leader, the more likely it is that those kinds of institutions will be corrupted, weakened or co-opted. The supreme court or constitutional tribunal might be stacked with the leader's allies, the ruling political party purged of internal opponents, the electoral commission defunded, the legislature dissolved and reconstituted along much friendlier lines, and so on.

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But one institution that is almost never fatally weakened is the military, for the simple and obvious reason that the military has big weapons that give it a certain amount of inherent power. (It can be co-opted and corrupted, of course, but plenty of autocrats have learned the hard way that such measures don't ensure loyalty forever.)

That strength means that when an uprising comes, there is an outsize chance that the military will play a decisive role in its conclusion — and, by extension, an outsize chance that any subsequent government's legitimacy could be tainted by claims that it was a coup. And as those governments struggle to assert their authority and rebuild public trust, that can set off a cycle of public anger and protests, leading to longer-term instability.

That's not an answer to the question of what is or isn't a coup. But in recent years there has been a wave of democratically elected populist leaders who have then undermined or dismantled institutions that could check them, which by extension has allowed their militaries' relative power to grow. In many cases it is too early to tell whether those leaders will face mass uprisings. But if they do, revolutionaries who see the military as a means to an end might find that they lose by winning.

What We're Reading

  • As transplants to London, we are pretty sure that An Economic History of the English Garden is going to be the thing that finally unlocks true understanding of our adopted country.
  • "Everyone comes to Iceland with a version of Iceland they've made up for themselves — a place of infinite happiness or infinite pools or infinite fermented shark or infinite Björk — and a visit to Iceland is very much about that particular Iceland, the one that really exists only in your mind." It has been a long and stressful week, so we're rereading this Taffy Brodesser-Akner classic about visiting Iceland in 2017.
  • Why do repressive states "create half-assed human rights institutions that (1) cost them money and domestic political capital, but (2) aren't actually convincing enough to protect them from international human rights pressure"? Kate Cronin-Furman, a political scientist at University College London, has a new article arguing that half measures are a strategic move: They help repressive states avoid real accountability by giving cover to potential allies who are willing to support them but don't want to look like they're protecting torturers and mass murderers.

How are we doing?

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