29 November 2019

Coup, Revolution, or Negotiated Regime Change

All my Latin American students and not a few radical friends strongly claim that what took place in Bolivia was a coup, focusing on the military role. I hesitate to concede the point, to begin with because the previous extra-constitutional manipulation by President Evo Morales, concerning the most important legal issue under presidential governments, that of term limits, very much prepared his own down-fall.

That choice in the face of the clear text of the Constitution he and his party helped to craft, in the face of a lost popular referendum, relied on a very dubious decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice previously established and packed by Morales himself. It should not be any more excused in the case of Morales than partially similar efforts of other Latin American presidents: Peron, Uribe, Fujimori, Menem, Chavez and Maduro. All of them sought to achieve third and fourth terms, implying the populist-personalist deformation of presidential government. Several also packed apex courts to enable their staying in power. Even the court packing scheme of Franklin Roosevelt, along with his running for four (!) terms should be strongly criticized. The 22nd Amendment supported by huge Article V. majorities in the U.S. Congress as well as the states was the culmination of that legitimate and much needed critique.

Nevertheless, the prehistory does not change the fact that there could have been a coup that removed President Morales. For example it was indeed a coup that removed Peron during his second term in office and after many of his own abuses of constitutional government.  Thus, before deciding the question in the Bolivian case, we need to try to understand what a coup is, and how it is different from a revolution. Interestingly, the older positivist legal theory defining revolution as the replacement of a government according to a process outside the legal rules of change was not able to make the distinction. We can improve on such a definition by replacing government by regime, and stressing regime change as well as the rupture of political legitimacy in the case of revolutions, but not necessarily coups that could be reduced to mere governmental replacement. But even then, Pinochet’s coup in Chile would still amount to a revolution. Most Leftists would undoubtedly answer that claim by adding the idea of progress, based on their value scheme, as a necessary component of revolutions. Analytically however that move cannot be justified, even by the use of the term counter-revolution. As we in Hungary after 1956 were chagrined to learn, what was to us a revolution was a counter-revolution to the Communist faithful. 

Even worse, almost all successful revolutions involve the violent taking of power by an armed elite, on behalf of a minority, the Bolshevik revolution being a case in point. There was also a coup by the new model army in the Puritan Revolution, and a Jacobin coup against a freely elected Convention in the French.  Thus if my political side continues to insist on a coup in Bolivia, we may have to accept that the other side will see the same as a revolution. After all not only legality was broken, but political legitimacy was shattered by Morales himself. There were furthermore huge anti-government masses assembled on the streets of many cities, and the duplication of sovereignty insisted on by no less a revolutionary than Leon Trotsky was realized at the latest when the police forces joined the demonstrations. Given the social stakes involved however, a right-wing revolution would be a disaster in Bolivia.

I continue to hope however that what occurred was not a revolution, and the brief events described as a coup represented only the unwillingness of the military to fight for a government that has lost its legitimacy. The hope can be disappointed, if the right wing supposedly interim government seeks to perpetuate itself, and either blocks the road to genuinely free elections, or deforms that process by repression, media manipulation or the ban on candidacies. If any of this happens, the dictatorial propensity of revolutions as well as coups would have been be realized.

But fortunately there is another method of radical change, namely negotiated transition, that has been practiced from Spain in the 1970s, Poland and Hungary in the late 1980s, and South Africa in the 1990s. (On this method see the forthcoming symposium on the Round Tables in Verfassungsblog edited by Kriszta Kovács). As Tunisia has shown, even after break in legality and legitimacy the negotiated model can be successfully followed, in effect domesticating the logic of revolution. There are signs that in Bolivia too, the new scenario of change can be followed after a crisis of legitimacy and an ambiguous break in legality. The fact that after initial boycotts of the legislature, the party of the ex-president, the MAS (Movement for Socialism) has agreed to and voted for an electoral scenario, without Morales as a candidate, indicates the positive direction the situation can evolve. But only the direction. Under the repressive measures of the military controlled by the interim government no free elections would be possible. The same is true if the social movements loyal more to Morales personally than to the MAS continue to put several cities under what amounts to a siege.  

A negotiated transition is not a matter of a single agreement, but a process of many steps by which mutual trust initially broken can be re-established. This means not only that politicians inside and outside Bolivia should desist from inflammatory statements, including references to a coup or to a revolution, but also the threat to arrest and imprison former leaders as customary in revolutions. Under the circumstances, the need for international supervision of legality, fair elections and openness of the media will be mandatory. The political outcome is far from clear, but it should be the joint product of the main sections of Bolivian society, rather than an imposition of any section, ethnic or political. Paradoxically, it may take international influence if not intervention to restore the democratic constituent power of Bolivians.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Arato, Andrew: Coup, Revolution, or Negotiated Regime Change, VerfBlog, 2019/11/29, https://verfassungsblog.de/coup-revolution-or-negotiated-regime-change/, DOI: 10.17176/20191129-180853-0.


  1. Franz Xavier Barrios Suvelza, University Erfurt So 8 Dez 2019 at 19:02 - Reply

    Professor Arato is right when doubting the coup d’État quality of what happened on the 10th of November in Bolivia that ended in Evo Morales’ resignation. The prudent view of Arato, avoiding to hastily speak of a coup in the Bolivian case, is not that obvious. Highly esteemed scholars, such as Professor Levitsky, have spoken of a coup d’État taking General Kaliman’s declaration, recommending Morales to step down, as the single fact for concluding that a coup took place. It seems as if Professor Levitsky found the fitting pretext in Kaliman’s declaration to corroborate his somehow preconceived diagnosis that since Bolivia has had a turbulent history of military coups this event just had to be another one. In contrast to Levitsky, Arato is more cautious. He begins by asking whether instead of a coup the idea of a revolution could not be a better category for approaching this process. After showing the intricacies that both coup and revolution as concepts bear, he suggests to better look at the way in which Bolivians are trying to negotiate the transition. That a method or radical change in terms of negotiation is now being carried out in Bolivia is in my view correct. But Arato’s insights still leave the question of how to accurately describe what happened before Bolivians entered into these negotiations unresolved. I surmise that this problem lies in not having a concept for describing an unusual interruption of a president’s mandate where the president himself has broken the legality that regulates access to state power. This was precisely what Morales did, a fact that Professor Arato also rightly stresses. At least since 2013 he perverted the constitutional order of the country regulating the electoral system. Thus, not a coup, but a sort of „remboîtement de d’Etat“ occurred. In other words, we need a category for describing a technique of an unconventional mandate-interruption that aims at repairing the electoral legal order that the expelled ruler had previously damaged. At times new categories are needed when conventional ones are not able to convey what is happening out there, as I have commented on in my recent post in the ICON blog in which I address the Bolivian riddle and its impact on the coup d’État theory (http://www.iconnectblog.com/2019/12/the-coup-detat-that-wasnt-does-the-latest-revolt-in-bolivia-reveal-limitations-of-a-concept-or-the-failure-of-scholars-using-it/

  2. Andrew Arato Do 12 Dez 2019 at 07:15 - Reply

    Your own cited article is amazingly strong! thank you for this comment.

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