The Thailand Exception: Are Coups a Thing of the Past?

Bangkok may be the coup capital of the world, but it doesn't have much competition these days.
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Soldiers guard a road in central Bangkok, a day after the Thai army chief seized power in a coup. (Reuters/Erik De Castro)

Thailand has suffered 12 coups in just over 80 years.

It's a statistic that's getting passed around a lot this week in the wake of #12—the Thai military's decision to seize power on Thursday, after months of political instability and efforts to oust the country's democratically elected prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

But the stat doesn't tell you how those 12 coups have been spaced out. The chart below suggests that while Thailand is tumultuous now—averaging a coup a decade isn't good—its politics were even more polarized in the 1950s and 1970s, which both witnessed a rash of failed and successful coups. In individual countries, coups tend to come in bunches. And that was certainly the case for Thailand in the mid-twentieth century.

This is in keeping with a broader global trend. Despite recent military takeovers in countries like Egypt, Mali, and Thailand, coups are far less common now than they were in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s.

"There's larger reasons to think there's more instability in the international system right now than there has been for at least the last ten-plus years and maybe since the end of the Cold War," the political scientist and coup-forecaster Jay Ulfelder told me. "We have seen a pretty noticeable uptick in onsets of mass atrocities, for example, and what look like rumblings of inter-state war."

The Democracy Report

"So, in a way, it's surprising that there haven't been more successful coups as part of that," he added. "Coups are kind of like the cheap version of instability."

On Thursday, Ulfelder published the chart below, which plots the number of successful coups around the world over time. The data points represent annual tallies from two data sets that track these events. "Think of the annual counts as noisy indicators of an underlying process—coup risk—that we’re really interested in but can’t directly observe," he wrote. "The lines represent statistical estimates of that underlying process."

Ulfelder noted that the observed historical trend holds true for failed coups as well, and that the decline is even more dramatic if you plot the rate of coups worldwide rather than the raw number. (There have been two coups in 2014: Thailand's, and the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, according to Powell & Thyne's definition.)

In the twenty-first century, there has never been more than two successful coups per year.

Jay Ulfelder

What explains the dramatic decrease in coups beginning in the late 1980s? Ulfelder, citing research by Hein Goemans and Nikolay Marinov, attributes the trend to three factors: 1) the end of the Cold War; 2) the international community's rejection of military takeovers; and 3) globalization.

When the Cold War receded, so too did the practice of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. supporting coups in other countries as part of their great-power rivalry. This shift was also accompanied by a shift in international norms, Ulfelder told me.

As the idea of democracy as the only legitimate form of government has gained traction, he said, world leaders have increasingly condemned coups because they are "undemocratic." Exhibit A: The U.S. government's decision on Friday to suspend $3.5 million in military aid to Thailand. This is one reason why, since the end of the Cold War, coups have more quickly given way to competitive elections, rather than ushering in entrenched military dictatorships.

The political scientist Jonathan Powell (the "Powell" in the data set used by Ulfelder above) documented this phenomenon on Friday, in explaining why he expects democracy to be restored quickly in Thailand. His charts are based on how political-science databases classified regime types following successful coups, from the year of the coup (year=0) through five years after the coup (year=5). Since the Soviet Union's collapse, Powell writes, "countries are about 5x more likely to be a democracy than a military regime when 3+ years removed from a coup."

Regime Type a Given Number of Years After a Coup

Jonathan Powell

 

Jonathan Powell

Globalization also has a chastening effect on coup plotters. "There is a slowdown in economic growth associated with coups, though some of that may be due to the instability that coups are in response to," Ulfelder told me. "Part of what's going on there is uncertainty and political instability are things that investors prefer to avoid. With countries more plugged into the global economy, where capital flight is more problematic, the costs are more substantial to national economies, and that's something the coup perpetrators often get held responsible for."

That being said, the Thai military's express goal in seizing power this week was to restore political stability and economic growth. And the move followed massive anti-government protests, just like the coup in Egypt that overthrew Mohammed Morsi last year. In both Egypt and Thailand, the protest movements that prompted military intervention enjoyed support from middle- and upper-class citizens. These aren't isolated cases. Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has argued that around the world, a growing middle class "is choosing stability over all else," and embracing "the military as a bulwark against popular democracy."

The idea of a popular, "middle-class military coup" isn't necessarily new—it has echoes in Latin America in the 1960s and 70s—but it's making a comeback in the few coups we're still seeing today, with troubling implications for democracy in the countries where they take place.

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. More

Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy and a staff writer for The Atlantic Wire.
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