Democracy: Coups versus elections

It is a little too easy to say that democratic elections are the best method of changing leadership around the world. Unfortunately the international community has a bad habit of saying just this. It’s trendy to condemn coups and attempted coups on principle, though often the coups are attempts to regain democratic footing in countries where democracy is little more than powerful rhetoric used by militant leaders.

The recent military coup in Niger was purportedly an attempt to regain democratic equilibrium in a country where the president had a track record of altering laws to retain power. Ousted President Tandja had changed the constitution several times to stay in office and delay elections. He was democratically elected in fair trials, but his tenure in office was a step away from democracy.

Though he overstayed his time in office and the people were frustrated with him to the point of instigating a year-long constitutional crisis, the international community refuses the coup on grounds of a breach of democracy, despite that the current government promises to hold democratic elections in the near future.

This is not an isolated event. The international community, particularly highly-industrialized and developed countries, has a history of dogmatically clinging to elections as a symbol of fair and legitimate democracy. Recent coups in Madagascar and Honduras and political unrest in Kenya and Sudan reflect instances in which democratic elections are harmful to the democratic process. Last year in Madagascar, the incumbent President Ravalomanana imposed several campaigning restrictions to hamper the possibility of lesser-known opponents winning the elections. When his opponent did win the elections, Ravalomanana contested the results and refused to leave office. Rajoelina effectively led months of violent protest to oust the incumbent president, which the United States and the European Union condemned.

The recent arrest and trial of Turkish military officials allegedly attempting to overthrow the government is the latest in a recent string of coups around the world. Although those under investigation are denying their involvement in such an attempt, there has been remarkably little coverage on the increasing change of Turkish laws and constitution to reflect the Muslim majority, including laws that require all government officials’ wives to be covered with a head scarf and compulsory religious education for children. The hotly-debated question is if these changes are in fact democratic or if they reflect a government trying to solidify its power by changing laws.

While many governments refuse to support or recognize the legitimacy of governments that come to power via violent coups, the United States has not shied away from instigating coups when it sees an interest. Including coups to oust Haitian, Nicaraguan and Chilean governments, the United States has a brutal history of supporting undemocratic coups for far less noble reasons than what some current leaders of coups are espousing.

Supporting democracy is not a matter of clinging to current governments and advocating for elections at all costs. When incumbent leaders have the power to change laws surrounding the presidency and polling, elections do not necessarily represent the will of the people. The answer is not to shun all coups on principle, but to shun leaders who work to extend their power at the expense of democracy. Coups should be prevented by focusing on democracy before the situation elevates to the point where a coup is the only conceivable means of removing someone from power.