This is a guest post by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán of the Department of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh and John Polga-Hecimovich of the Political Science Department at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. It is based on their paper in Democratization.
Are presidential impeachments modern functional equivalents of old-fashioned military coups? The impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in August 2016 led to an acrimonious debate on whether her removal from office constituted a “soft coup” against an elected leader. Similar concerns were voiced after the impeachment of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo in 2012. As calls to impeach President Donald Trump multiply, this question appears to gain increasing relevance for US politics as well.For students of presidentialism, the idea of “functional equivalence” between military coups and legal ousters (impeachments, legislative declarations of presidential incapacity, or anticipated resignations of the executive) translates into very specific questions: Are there any historical factors able to explain military coups as well as impeachments? If so, why are some presidents removed following legal procedures while others are removed by force?
In a forthcoming paper in Democratization we develop a unified theory of presidential instability to explain why presidents are removed from office through military coups or through legal procedures.
We identify two sets of historical causes. First, some factors create conditions for presidential instability, irrespective of the mode of premature exit from office. Because they motivate a political opposition to conspire against the government, those factors explain why presidents are likely to fail, but not how they fail. Second, an alternative set of causes accounts for the specific institutional manifestations of presidential instability. Those factors map onto the relative capabilities of groups inclined to pursue a military coup or the legal removal of the president.
The distinction between general motivations to remove the president and the capabilities of specific opposition groups helps us identify the role of different causal explanations in the literature.
Among the common causes of legal removals and coups, we find:
- Poor economic conditions. Recessions undermine the president and facilitate conspiracies. Studies on military coups argue that negative economic shocks increase the risk of military rebellions, while the literature on impeachments shows that weak economies undermined Latin American presidents in the 1990s.
- Popular protests. Mass mobilization against the government signals that the president is weak and destabilizes any elected administration. Students of military intervention find that mass protests help elites coordinate in a coup. Students of impeachment emphasize that protests encourage reluctant legislators to act against the president.
- Radicalization. Radical actors have intense and extreme preferences; they are reluctant to bargain and remain intransigent in defense of their policy goals. Radicalism is therefore a potential cause of military coups, but also an explanation for the role of social movements forcing the resignation of presidents in places like Bolivia and Ecuador.
Given the prior conditions for instability, several factors separate legal removals from coups:
- The regional context. A long line of research has invoked international diffusion as an explanation for democratic instability – though not necessarily government instability. The regional context may strengthen the position of coup perpetrators or otherwise direct elites towards legal strategies against the president.
- Legislative support for the president. Two causal mechanisms are discussed in the literature: Linz’s argument that presidentialism itself is a source of instability and the argument that a legislative majority “shields” the executive against impeachment.
- Elite support for democracy. A strong normative preference for democracy among elites forecloses the possibility of a military coup and leaves legal removal as the only acceptable strategy for the opposition. The government’s normative preferences also matter: a president dismissive of democratic rules may be unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of an impeachment procedure, driving opponents to consider the option of a coup.
To test those expectations, we use discrete-time event history models with selection. Our sample covers all democratic regimes in nineteen Latin American countries between 1945 and 2010 (N = 729). The dependent variable measures yearly outcomes for each president: survival, exit via military coup, or exit via legal removal. Our sample includes 21 coups and 15 legal removals. The selection model estimates the risk of president being removed from office (in any way) in the selection stage, and the risk of being removed via coup (as opposed to a legal procedure) in the outcome stage.
The statistical models allow us to estimate the risk of coups and impeachments, plotted in Figures 1 and 2.
Figure 1 underscores the role of common motivations behind coups (in the bottom row) and impeachments (in the top row), as economic recession, demonstrations, and radicalization consistently expand the risk of both outcomes.
Figure 1: Common Causes of Legal Removals and Coups (Predicted Risk)
Figure 2, on the other hand, illustrates the differential impact of variables. The first column illustrates how a large number of coups in neighboring countries expands the risk of military intervention but reduces the probability of legal removal in the observed country. The second column shows that the risk of military overthrow remains independent from the composition of congress, but impeachment is less likely when the executive controls the legislature. The third column shows that a military coup is unlikely when political actors are more committed to democracy. By contrast, the risk of legal removal expands as groups operating within the constitution become empowered by the opposition’s reluctance to engage in military conspiracies.
Figure 2: Causes Separating Legal Removals and Coups (Predicted Risk)
Our findings underscore that common causes of presidential instability are not necessarily causes of democratic breakdown, yet crises of government may easily escalate into crises of the democratic regime when legal venues for the removal of the president are blocked.
These findings are increasingly relevant today.
In a global context in which presidents and their adversaries – in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Turkey, and even the U.S. – have displayed growing levels of radicalism, our findings raise concerns. Radical leaders engender polarization, encouraging their opponents to overthrow the government by any means possible. Combined with economic stagnation or social protest, radicalization is likely to trigger presidential instability.
Yet other factors ultimately tip a crisis towards a non-democratic resolution. A regional environment hostile to democracy and a lack of democratic commitment from domestic elites decrease the probability of a legal impeachment and increase the likelihood of a coup.
International policymakers would be wise to consider these findings: long-term efforts to build regional organizations that discourage military intervention and steady support for democratic leaders will prevent future presidential crises from escalating into full crises of democracy.