Ecuador Has 99 Problems But a Coup Isn’t One
In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Alexander Noyes, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, analyzes Ecuador’s democratic trajectory in the light of recent impeachment proceedings against President Guillermo Lasso.
On May 17, the president of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, dissolved the country’s legislature in the midst of impeachment proceedings against him. Did Ecuador just have a self-coup? Opposition leaders say yes. But the answer is no, at least for now. This matters greatly for the country’s democratic trajectory and for the international community’s response.
After a recent lull, coups and coup attempts are front-page news again, from Sudan to Brazil to the United States. This surge in coup activity prompted Antonio Guterres, the United Nations chief, to decry an “epidemic” of coups. Perhaps more troublingly for democracy worldwide, coups-plotters have evolved. Scholars have traditionally defined coups as: “overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means.”
But now, these softer, more subtle self-coups—whereby a sitting chief executive uses sudden and irregular (i.e., illegal or unconstitutional) measures to seize power or dismantle checks and balances—have become the new mode of coup. Self-coups, also known as auto-coups, are much more sophisticated than soldiers in fatigues taking television stations by force in order to announce the overthrow of a country’s leader. Self-coups are rarely bloody, but can be just as harmful to democracy as the more traditional military overthrows.
A raft of countries have experienced successful self-coups or coup attempts of late. There have been nine successful or attempted self-coups over the last decade, according to the Cline Center at the University of Illinois, which collects comprehensive information on all types of coups around the world. Self-coup illegal power grabs have occurred across a range of regions and political systems, including in semi-autocracies, such as Pakistan in 2022, as well as semi-democracies, like Tunisia in 2021. Worryingly, full democracies have not been immune to this trend, with the United States suffering a failed self-coup at the hands of President Trump on January 6th, 2021, which the Cline Center labeled an auto-coup.