Quora Question: What Makes a Military Coup Successful?

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Surrendered Turkish soldiers who were involved in the failed coup against Erdogan being beaten by a civilian on Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul on July 16. Ted Galen Carpenter asks whether the U.S. is obliged to come to the aid of a NATO ally that is a dictatorship in all but name. reuters

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Answer from Carter Moore, former Congressional aide and federal employee:

The simple answer of whether or not a military coup was successful is if there was displacement of the previous authorities (preferably with all limbs and vital organs intact) and a failure of any organized resistance to manifest—either organized by the deposed regime or an unhappy civilian populace.

The long-game is less simple.

Coups are inherently about power struggles—whether among personalities or institutions. You gauge success by which of the opposing forces has the upper hand once an orderly government is restored (with abject failure being measured as a civil war).

Say, in the case of Turkey’s coup, the military says they're trying to restore the rule of law and Constitutional principles. Well, you can gauge success by whether free and fair elections follow, and the military backs down in deference to the winners. Order restored: coup success in both effect (asserting power) and ideals.

Less inspiring, let’s say the coup’s objective is, “Screw the current regime, we have someone better.” Success is whether the new personality is able to effectively command the government against resistance from the previous regime’s loyalists. It's less lofty than defending principles of democracy, but still a success.

Alternately, let’s say that the military sweeps in claiming to be protectors of democracy, but decide that they like being in charge and never allow elections or civilian rule to return. They may have betrayed the ideals of the coup—if ever seriously held to begin with—but they still succeeded in establishing a new order and holding onto power.

Now let's say the military succeeds in booting the existing leadership, but can't establish authority outside the capital. They may be “in charge” on paper, and so claim success, but all they've really succeeded in doing is creating dysfunction—the power struggle continues, just more openly.

If there's no government in control on the other side of a coup attempt—military or civilian—then the point of the coup, to establish one person or institution in a position of indisputable power, has failed. Sometimes this can be apparent in a matter of days, sometimes longer.

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