Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2014

Degree Type

Closed Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

Jennifer L. McCoy

Second Advisor

Kim D. Reimann

Third Advisor

Ryan E. Carlin

Fourth Advisor

Dan Slater


Civil society, according to mainstream democratization literature, has a positive impact on democratic survival and durability. As a critical promoter of democracy, it has proven to limit state power, foster political participation, and enrich associational life. There is however a recent phenomenon among fledgling democratic regimes where mobilization of civil society in alliance with other political actors generated extreme political instability, with some even resulting in the ouster of democratically-elected leaders. These “civil society coups” cast doubt on the status of civil society as unconditional defenders of the democratic order around the world. In this dissertation, I explain the causal conditions and causal mechanisms behind this type of executive interruption and analyze its consequences for a country’s democratization process. I argue that the combination of a historical legacy of military intervention in politics, weakened accountability institutions, and societal infrastructure of political contention create the conditions for a civil society coup to be the outcome of a legitimacy crisis faced by a sitting executive. The causal mechanisms driving these conditions involve civil society’s ability to diffuse political contention and broker coalitions between politicians and the military.

These arguments are tested using a mixed-method comparative research design. First, I conduct a qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) of all executive interruptions among third wave democracies in Latin America and Asia from 1974-2010.This method is complemented by a controlled comparison of four countries that experienced successful and failed cases of civil society coups: the Philippines, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Thailand. Another product of this cross-case and within-case comparison is a process-oriented theory that enumerates the different stages of a civil society coup. These are: (1) acts of majoritarian excess by the executive; (2) preliminary civil society mobilization; (3) coup coalition formation; and (4) institutional crisis and military intervention. My dissertation concludes that while civil society coups may not necessarily result in democratic breakdown, they produce unintended consequences dangerous for democratization such as intensified political polarization, an expansion of the military’s political prerogatives, and institutional decay. These findings have implications for strengthening and deepening democratic quality among regimes belonging to the third wave democratization democracies and beyond.