Love Ballads, Carnations, and Coups
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Editor’s note: The excerpt below is a shortened version of the first chapter of The Democratic Coup d’État, a book published by Turkish-born legal scholar Ozan Varol. In his book, Varol analyzes instances of military coups conducted by establishment military forces that had the intended result of producing democracy in the nations in which the coups occurred, with some success. To say the least, the topic has been controversial in a global political environment that broadly regards coups for any reason as anathema. However, examples of the extreme measures that some military institutions have taken in the past under the asserted justification that such were necessary to right the ships of state are especially relevant to consider today by students of war and society in the face of increasing popular restiveness due to overpopulation, underserved populations, and broad institutionalized corruption within many nations. Such events severely challenge the concept of republican-style representative democracy once envisioned by many as the universal panacea to mitigating economic inequities and social injustices. In the eyes of the peoples of many nations of the world, representative democracy and its handmaiden, capitalism, have simply failed to deliver what was promised. As a result, much of the global community is watching closely the development and efficacy of other political constructs, such as the corporate state exemplified by China, Russia, and Iran, and considering calls for a return to strongman oligarchic rule in such places as Latin America. These challenge both the fundamental concept that Western-style representative-democracy is universally appropriate for all nations and raise in relief the question as to what role the military should have in our modern age.
From The Democratic Coup d’ État by Ozan Varol Copyright 2017 published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Excerpt from “Chapter 1 - Love Ballads, Carnations, and Coups”
The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual spectacle thoroughly mocked but also adored by millions of viewers.1 The contest is produced annually by the European Broadcasting Union, whose membership includes fifty countries that expand beyond the borders of Europe. Each country nominates one song produced by a local artist, and national juries award points during a live event to the songs nominated by other countries. These points are then tallied to determine the winner.
As a child growing up in Turkey, I vividly recall being glued to the TV during each year’s Eurovision Contest. I’d munch on popcorn and listen to my parents discuss conspiracy theories about why other countries are always loath to vote for Turkish songs. Eurovision has been around since 1956—long before American Idol or The Voice—and continues to inspire bizarre performances, music of highly questionable quality, and fierce nationalism as political battles get settled on the musical stage.
In 1974, Portugal’s nominee for Eurovision was a ballad titled “E Depois do Adeus,” or “After the Farewell.” Penned by the singer Paulo de Carvalho, it depicts the end of a romantic relationship. The song performed abysmally in the Eurovision Contest, coming in fourteenth in a field of seventeen. Yet Carvalho’s deep disappointment must have morphed into utter astonishment when his love ballad served as the signal to launch a military coup d'état in the heart of Europe.
In the Western world, military coups are ordinarily relegated to the fantasy realm. Coups are supposed to happen in backward, faraway lands, in countries riddled with corruption and incompetence, and in nations that end with –stan. But on April 25, 1974, Western Europeans awoke to a coup in their own backyard.
At the time of the 1974 coup,2 the now democratic Portugal was home to a brutal dictatorship. Although it was dubbed the Estado Novo, the New State, the dictatorship was anything but new. António de Oliveira Salazar established the regime in 1933, and Marcelo Caetano took over the reins after Salazar suffered a stroke in 1968. By the time of the coup, the dictatorship had been around for over four decades, which gave it the dubious honor of being Western Europe’s oldest authoritarian government. Although the regime held periodic elections, opposition political parties were generally outlawed, except for a brief period immediately before the elections. This act of democratic window dressing left little opportunity for political parties to organize and mount effective election campaigns. With “sadistic efficiency,” the regime’s reviled political police, known as the International Police in Defense of the State (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado), censored, imprisoned, tortured, and outright assassinated dissidents.3
Under the Estado Novo, Portugal became the last European power to cling to colonial adventures in Africa. Colonies in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique, among others, provided Portugal with gold, diamonds, and cheap raw materials and furnished an easy market for the export of Portuguese wines and textiles. To continue its lucrative colonial exploitations, the dictatorship committed Portugal to costly and disastrous wars in the colonies. These wars isolated Portugal from the international community, damaged its already ailing economy, and ruined its military.
During the dictatorship, Portugal was the most underdeveloped nation in Western Europe, with many Portuguese living in abject poverty. Portuguese workers were the most poorly paid in Western Europe; wages in Portugal were seven times less than Swedish wages and five times less than British wages. Labor unions and strikes were prohibited. Although the nation was ailing and disaffection was widespread, the regime prevented the opposition from catalyzing meaningful changes, and its stronghold on power showed no signs of abating.
In this corrupt dictatorship, the military was the only state institution with significant levels of popular support. In contrast to many nations, where the military is isolated from society, Portugal’s continuous colonial wars made isolation impossible. To supply the military machine from a small population, the regime mandated a two-year military service for all men. By 1974, 1.5 million Portuguese had served overseas, and one in every four adult males was in the armed forces. Further, the low pay levels of military officers required them to work in the civilian sector to supplement their income while off duty, which kept them in frequent contact with civilians. Over time, in a very real sense, the armed forces became the Portuguese society.
For many years, the military was a mere pawn in the Estado Novo. The armed forces participated in Portugal’s colonial wars and carried out most regime demands. But as dissatisfaction with the regime grew rampant, the military became the player that moved the pieces.
On April 25, 1974, devastated by unwinnable colonial wars as well as low pay and prestige, two hundred military officers decided to take action. The officers initially called themselves the Captains’ Movement, which they later renamed the Armed Forces Movement to portray the image of broader support throughout the military. Their plan was to topple the dictatorship, fully restore civil liberties, hold elections for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, abolish the political police, find a diplomatic solution to the colonial wars, and turn power over to democratically elected leaders. Although it was junior officers who planned and staged the coup, they picked a senior officer, General António de Spínola, to serve as its figurehead. Spínola was a well-respected war hero who had penned a controversial book, Portugal and the Future, which argued that a military victory in the colonies was impossible and instead proposed a political solution that granted the colonies limited autonomy.
The signal to launch the coup was two songs broadcast on two different radio stations. Precisely at 10:55 p.m. on April 24, a radio station would play Paulo de Carvalho’s “After the Farewell,” Portugal’s ill-fated nominee for the 1974 Eurovision Contest. Less than two hours later, at 12:25 a.m. on April 25, it would be followed by a second song, “Grândola, Vila Morena,” referring to a town in southern Portugal as a swarthy or sun-baked town. This song was composed by Zeca Afonso, whose works were banned by the regime for advocating communism.
As “Grândola, Vila Morena” began to hum on radios across Portugal, the coup plotters moved into action. The soldiers first seized public news sources, followed by the Lisbon airport. Tanks rolled into Lisbon’s Praça do Comércio, a central square situated on the Tagus River. Other units seized the Salazar Bridge across the Tagus to prevent any possible resistance from the South. Army officers loyal to the regime were quick to put down their guns after they realized they were significantly outnumbered. With his end in sight, the ruling dictator, Caetano, relented and called General Spínola to arrange for a transfer of power. Caetano and other prominent regime officials were forced into exile.
The forty-year-old dictatorship collapsed with remarkable speed. The coup was peaceful; there were no executions. But there were new sheriffs in town.
Following the coup, thousands immediately flocked to the streets in celebration. The crowds picked up carnations from the Lisbon flower market, a central gathering point, and placed them in the gun barrels of soldiers as symbols of support. Car horns honked the rhythm of “Spín-Spín-Spínola.” During the May Day celebrations in Lisbon, which took place within a week of the coup, a banner that read “THANK YOU, ARMED FORCES” was unfurled in a soccer stadium packed with a crowd of 200,000 to hear speeches by leftist leaders who had returned from exile. In the following weeks, red carnations became ubiquitous across Portugal, displayed everywhere from buttonholes on men’s jackets to women’s blouses. The April 25 coup came to be known as the Carnation Revolution.
The day after the coup, on April 26, General Spínola delivered a brief statement on public television. He introduced the ruling military junta, a group of seven high-ranking officers from the army, air force, and navy. The junta would guide the transition process to democracy, establish and run a transitional government, hold democratic elections, and transfer power to a civilian government. On May 15, following his official inauguration as the president of the Republic, Spínola appointed Adelino de Palma Carlos, a politically moderate former law professor, as his prime minister. Carlos’s government would work toward what came to be known as “the three Ds”—decolonization, democratization, and development—with the ultimate objective of integrating Portugal into the European community.
In his book, The Democratic Coup d’État, distinguished legal scholar Ozan Varol develops the controversial thesis that sometimes military coups lead to the establishment of democracy and not exclusively to the concentration of power in the hands of oppressive oligarchies or dictators so often associated with coups. In defense of his assertions, he links historical circumstances and events in a typology that relates diverse coups in history beginning with the Athenian navy’s stance in 411 BC against a tyrannical home government, to the revolt against British injustice in the American colonies, to an assortment of twentieth-century coups that overthrew dictators and established democracy in countries in diverse geographical regions of the world. Deriving and relating common factors from examination of the circumstances of each such event, Varol challenges the dominant view that tends to affirm that all coups are unjustified, being equally illegitimate irrespective of motivation or outcome. In so doing, he addresses several questions that should be of great interest to students of political conflict in our own time as, for example, what distinguishes a legitimate from an illegitimate coup. Though a legal specialist in the details of international law on the subject, Varol has set aside complex and nuanced legal jargon and has written a book accessible to a general audience. To say the least, the book has proven very controversial internationally, stirring deep and bitter debate among the global intelligencia. As such, the arguments he offers as proof of his thesis should be of vital interest (and concern) to students of war and political conflict in general as the world becomes more crowded, more competitive, and more ethnically and culturally complex.
Soon after the coup political parties began to form, and within a few months approximately fifty parties were competing for power in the newly minted democratic marketplace. The military abolished censorship of the press and permitted freedom of expression. As a result, meetings and demonstrations—once completely banned—became a visible part of daily life. Political prisoners jailed during the Estado Novo were freed. The coup also ended Portugal’s costly colonial adventures in Africa, with the ruling military granting independence to the colonies.
To achieve democratization, the military strove to win the hearts and minds of the rural population, which required increased levels of interaction between the military and civilians. For example, the military organized a rural development program called the Cultural Dynamization Campaign to educate the population about the ongoing democratization process. The campaign sought to ensure that the largely illiterate rural population would not be manipulated into reelecting authoritarian regime. The campaign was run primarily by soldiers, though civilian singers and artists also participated. Through its “sessions of enlightenment,” the campaign delivered information on a variety of political issues, such as decolonization and the upcoming democratic elections. The military brought its dynamization campaign to more than 1.5 million peasants, workers, and shopkeepers. These interactions, in turn, kept the military in touch with civilian values.
Like most transitions from dictatorship to democracy, the coup also brought social and economic turmoil to Portugal. When dictatorships fall, they fall hard. The Portuguese transition to democracy produced six provisional governments, three elections, and two coup attempts. After decolonization, the textile industry, which employed about 120,000 people at the time, lost its supply of raw materials and access to convenient markets in the colonies. The reduction in the size of the armed forces following the end of the colonial wars also swelled the ranks of the jobless. The newfound freedom of expression and freedom to strike prompted intense demonstrations, and once-forbidden strikes affected all sectors of the economy. Workers took over factories, and students revolted in schools. Even the Carnation Revolution produced a few thorns.
As promised, the ruling military junta held democratic elections for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, which were symbolically scheduled for the first anniversary of the coup, April 25, 1975. These elections were the first in Portuguese history to feature universal suffrage and a secret vote, and the first meaningful elections in Portugal since the 1920s. The turnout was an impressive 92 percent. Following parliamentary and presidential elections, the coup leaders, successful in dismantling the dictatorship, turned over power to democratically elected leaders. In addition to creating a democracy in Portugal, the coup instigated a global wave of democratization known as the Third Wave across more than sixty countries.4
The date of the coup became, and remains, a national holiday in Portugal. Along with many other streets and squares in Portugal, the iconic Salazar Bridge in Lisbon over the River Tagus was renamed the April 25 Bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril). In 1999, an exhibition opened to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the military coup and to celebrate the establishment of Portugal’s still thriving democracy.
One of the two songs that triggered the April 25 coup, “Grândola, Vila Morena,” came to symbolize the coup and the beginning of democratic rule. In February 2013, protesters sitting in the public gallery of the Portuguese Parliament interrupted Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s speech with a rendition of the same song, to protest his government’s economic and social policies. To his credit, the prime minister calmly awaited the removal of the protesters before commenting, “Of all the ways work might be interrupted, this would seem to be in the best possible taste.”5
When we think of military coups, the first images that pop into our heads are not the establishment of Western democracies, carnations, or soccer stadiums filled with jubilant fans celebrating the gift of liberty. Rather the term “coup d’état” brings to mind coups staged through corrupt backroom plots by power-hungry generals. Coups remind us of Muammar Gaddafi, Augusto Pinochet, Omar al-Bashir, and scores of other ruthless military dictators who wreak havoc on their local populations and set their national progress back by decades.
These military dictators, and others like them, abuse public trust and overthrow the existing regime not to democratize but to concentrate power in their own hands. Once they assume power, they stay in power. They disband parliaments, suspend constitutions, impose curfews, declare martial law, censor the media, ban protests, crack down on dissidents, commit atrocious human rights abuses, and instill fear in every corner of the country. This is the image that fits comfortably in our preconceptions of coups: brutal, ruthless, and bad.
The modern study of civil-military relations developed largely in response to these types of antidemocratic military interventions. The experts reached a consensus that all coups inherently present a menace to democracy, and we were told to move along—nothing to see or dispute here.6 As a result, when we think of military coups, we tend to do so in a homogeneous fashion: coups look the same, smell the same, and present the same threats to democracy.
It’s a powerful, concise, and self-reinforcing idea.
It’s also wrong.
I challenge this consensus about military coups. Distilled to its core, my hypothesis is this: Sometimes a democracy is established through a military coup. That simple statement conceals many complexities. I begin with an introduction to the basics.
A democratic coup occurs when the domestic military, or a section of it, turns its arms against a dictatorship, temporarily takes control of the government, and oversees a transition to democracy. The transition ends with free and fair elections of civilians and the military’s retreat to the barracks.
Of course a military coup itself is an undemocratic event. In a coup, the military assumes power not through elections but by force or the threat of force. I use the term democratic to refer to the regime type the coup produces.
The target of a democratic coup is an authoritarian government. Under this definition, a coup staged against democratically elected leaders is not democratic. Many coups have been perpetrated against supposedly corrupt, inefficient, or shortsighted politicians. These coups are not democratic because there is another avenue, short of military intervention, for getting rid of these politicians: vote them out of office. A coup may be considered democratic only when the incumbent politicians do not permit competitive elections.
Foreign interventions, in the name of democratic regime change or otherwise, are also excluded from my definition of a democratic coup. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq serves as a poignant reminder of the unique set of problems generated through interventions by foreign powers. In democratic coups, it’s the domestic military that topples the dictatorship and oversees a transition to democracy.
At this introductory stage, the reader may object to even considering the questions I raise. If we succeed in explaining how military coups may produce democracies, will that not legitimize military coups? Doesn’t the phrase democratic coup falsely glorify coups at the expense of preferable methods of regime change?
Ideally, of course, enlightened civilians, not military leaders, would oversee a transition process from authoritarianism to democracy. But often the conditions necessary for that ideal transition are absent. The civilian leaders at the helm may be unwilling to give up power. The dictatorship may crush popular movements before they take root. Worse, civilian elites may be in cahoots with the authoritarian government and lack interest in democratic progress. The press and civil society may be malfunctioning under the oppressive might of an authoritarian state.
In these cases, we may have to expand our aperture to include an institution traditionally assumed to hamper, not promote, democracy: the military. If other paths to democratization have been blocked by a dictator, the armed forces, equipped with sheer military might, may be the only institution capable of toppling the dictatorship and installing a democracy. In some cases the second-best option in theory may be the best option in practice.
The democratic coup remains the exception, not the norm. Many military coups continue to pose impediments to democratic development and pave the way for military dictatorships. But the democratic coup is not an extreme outlier. Countries as diverse as Portugal, Mali, Colombia, Burkina Faso, England, Guinea-Bissau, Guatemala, Turkey, Egypt, Peru, and the United States have all undergone democratization after their militaries turned their arms against the incumbent government. Each of these cases is a major snag in the standard thinking on coups.
Democratic coups are also not limited to these cases. According to an empirical study, in the post-cold war era, 72 percent of coups (31 out of 43) were followed by democratic elections within five years.7 As the authors of that study note, “the new generation of coups has been far less harmful for democracy than their historical predecessors.”8 According to another study of coups in African countries from 1952 to 2012, authoritarian states in Africa are “significantly more likely to democratize in the three years following coups.”9
A democratic coup is like chemotherapy: an extreme measure reserved for extreme cases. It can be highly effective in curing an authoritarian patient, but it can also have significant side effects, at least in the short term. Although numerous coups have produced meaningful democracies, the standard disclaimer still applies: Past performance does not guarantee future results.
Some readers may feel that I am offering a naïve account of military coups. After all, why would soldiers armed with guns ever submit to politicians in suits? How could an event as undemocratic as a coup lead to democracy? As Lord Acton famously quipped, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Military leaders may echo the rhetoric of democracy or mimic its rituals, but surely they cannot have any altruistic commitments to democracy that transcend the immediate lure of absolute power.
… Altruism is not the primary driver of the phenomenon I describe here. Where the interests of the military elites and a dictatorship are aligned, the military will tend to support the dictator. Where, however, conflicts emerge between the military leadership and the dictatorship, or where popular opposition to the dictator becomes powerful enough to thwart the regime’s suppression efforts, the military’s incentives may change. Faced with a wobbling authoritarian government, the military might stage a coup, seize power from the regime, and oversee a transition process that ends with the transfer of power to the people. That option allows the military to establish a more stable regime, emerge in the eyes of the people as a credible state institution, and preserve its own interests during a transition process that the military leaders themselves control.
Elsewhere [in my book], I have taken a step back and more broadly explored the universe of democratic transitions … and why we tend to romanticize democratic transitions like most romantic comedies glamorize love: The people gather in a central square, start protesting, topple the dictatorship, hold elections, and live happily ever after. On-the-ground facts often fail to live up to this simple ideal explaining why history is littered with failed attempts to democratize, and why even successful democratic transitions are often painfully long and violent. It is my hope to inject a healthy dose of reality into our [deleted word] expectations about emerging democratic movements, which, if unrestrained, can blunt our capability to appreciate alternative avenues for democratic regime change. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good, particularly since the perfect is often unattainable.
History shows that the military pays a decisive role in almost all revolutions and, in some cases, the military may be the only actor available to ignite democratic regime change.
… Having deposed a dictator, the military will have two choices: keep power and establish a military dictatorship or give up power to civilian leaders and pave the way for democratic regime change. Some militaries opt for the former, and others pick the latter.
This type of coup ends with the election of democratic leaders and the military’s retreat to the barracks. In some cases, the coup may produce only a fragile democracy, teetering on the brink of collapse. Democratic institutions may not fully mature, and the military may roar back to life after a superficial exit from civilian politics. But in other cases the budding democracy created by a coup can eventually blossom into a genuine liberal democracy, as it did in the case of the 1974 Portuguese coup. The establishment of democratic institutions—however unwittingly—can open up a democratic Pandora’s box that even the military leadership itself cannot contain. Once ignited, democracy may persist, despite any attempts to extinguish it.
- The description of the Eurovision song contest is taken from The Spectacle of the Eurovision Song Contest, Boston.com (last visited December 6, 2016), http://archive.boston.com/news/world/gallery/051509eurovision/.
- My analysis of the 1974 coup in Portugal rests on Kenneth Maxwell, The Thorns of the Portuguese Revolution, 54 Foreign Aff. 250 (1976); Douglas Porch, The Portuguese Armed Forces and the Revolution (1977); Lawrence S. Graham, The Portuguese Military and the State: Rethinking Transitions in Europe and Latin America (1993); John Hammond, The Armed Forces Movement and the Portuguese Revolution: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, 10 J. Pol. & Mil. Soc. 71 (1982); Jose A. Santos, Portugal: From Empire to Nation-State, 9 Fletcher F. 125 (1985); Paul Christopher Manuel, The Challenges of Democratic Consolidation in Portugal: Political, Economic, and Military Issues, 1976-1991 (1996); Portugal: Cheers, Carnations, and Problems, Time (May 13, 1974), http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,908577-1,00.html; Ozan O. Varol, The Democratic Coup d’ État, 53 Harv, Int’l L.J. 292 (2012); Ozan O. Varol, The Military as the Guardian of Constitutional Democracy, 51 Colum. J. Transn’l L. 547 (2013)
- Portugal: Cheers, Carnations, and Problems.
- Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991).
- Revolutionary Freedom Song Interrupts Parliamentary Debate, Portugal News Online (Feb 16, 2013), http://www.theportugalnews.com/news/revolutionary-freedom-song-interrupts-parliamentary-debate/27779.
- See, e.g., Gregory H. Fox, Internationalizing National Politics: Lessons for International Organizations, 13 Widener L. Rev. 265, 265 (2007) (noting that the international community has universally condemned military coups); Jonathan M. Powell, An Assessment of the “Democratic Coup” Theory: Democratic Trajectories in Africa, 1952-2012, 23 Afr. Security Rev. 213 (2014) (noting that “coups are almost invariably condemned”); Stephen E. Gottlieb, Does What We Know about the Life Cycle of Democracy Fit Constitutional Law?, 61 Rutgers L., Rev. 595, 604 n.43 (2009) (noting that a coup is a “non-democratic” form of regime change); Venkat Iyer, Restoration Constitutionalism in the South Pacific, 15 Pac. Rim L. & Pol’y J. 39, 39 (2006) (noting that coups often lead to “regimes antithetical to freedom and democracy”); Enrique Lagos & Timothy D. Rudy, The Third Summit of the Americas and the Thirty-First Session of the OAS General Assembly, 96 Am. J. Int’l L. 173, 175 (2002) (noting that a coup constitutes “undemocratic behavior”); Salvador Maria Lozada, The Successful Appeal from Ballots to Bullets: The Herculean Hardships of Judicializing Politics in Latin America, 25 N.Y.U. J. Int’l L. & Pol. 123, 125 (1992) (“The coup d’état extinguishes democratic government and establishes a military dictatorship, which implies the disappearance of legislative power,”); Tayyab Mahmud, Jurisprudence of Successful Treason: Coup d’ État and Common Law, 27 Cornell Int’l L.J. 49, 51 (1994)(“Since an incumbent regime forms part of the constitutional order, its extra-constitutional overthrow is not only illegal but amounts to the high crime of treason.”); Andrew C. Janos, The Seizure of Power: A Study of Force and Popular Consent, in Res. Monograph No. 16, at 36 (Ctr. Int’l Studies, Woodrow Wilson Sch. Pub. & Int’l Affairs, Princeton Univ., 1964) (noting that a coup is “the reversal of the process of revolution”); Julio Rios-Figueroa, Constitutional Courts as mediators: Armed Conflict, Civil-Military Relations, and the Rule of Law in Latin America, at 1 (“Coups kill the democratic rule of law.”).
- Nikolay Marinov & Hein Goermans, Coups and Democracy, 44 British J. Pol. Sci. 799 (2013). This does not mean, however, that 72 percent of all coups in the post-cold war era are democratic coups. For example, if a coup is staged against a democratically elected government (as opposed to an authoritarian government), that coup would fall outside this book’s democratic framework, regardless of whether democratic elections followed the coup.
- Powell (2014).
Ozan Varol is a professor of law at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, specializing in criminal law and procedure, and comparative constitutional law. A native of Istanbul, he also serves as a legal consultant and expert witness on Turkish law for various private and government entities. He has a bachelor’s degree in planetary sciences from Cornell University, where he was a member of the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers mission before deciding to change careers and become a lawyer. He received his law degree from the University of Iowa College of Law, where he graduated first in his class. Before entering academia, he served as a law clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and practiced law in San Francisco, where he worked on complex civil and white-collar criminal defense litigation. Varol is a prolific and widely published writer.
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