In Box

The New Coups

The New Coups

A coup d’état can only mean that a country is going from bad to worse, right? Perhaps it’s time to reexamine what happens on the morning after.

Hein Goemans, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, has compiled an index of the causes and outcomes of 202 unconstitutional seizures of power since 1960. Recently, he teamed up with Nikolay Marinov, a political scientist at Yale University, to hunt for patterns.

Marinov points to a common assumption: "Everyone knew what happened after coups. The people who took power would retain power and rule autocratically." Indeed, coups have historically led far more often to brutal dictatorships — think Chile’s Pinochet or Indonesia’s Suharto — than democracies.

Yet the researchers think that a new pattern has emerged since the end of the Cold War. Coups occur far less frequently today, according to their work. Between 1960 and 1990, an average of six coups took place annually (1963 was a high-water mark, with a whopping 12 coups). But in the last dozen years, the frequency has dropped to roughly half that.

Perhaps more importantly, the strongmen who’ve ridden recent coups to power have enjoyed less political longevity. Between 1960 and 1990, the majority of these leaders (8 in 10) held onto power autocratically for at least five years. But since 1990, more than two thirds of governments resulting from coups have allowed competitive elections within five years. In most cases, these elections have resulted in governments changing hands.

What’s different today? Goemans and Marinov speculate that one factor is external: Since the end of Cold War rivalry for spheres of influence, Western powers have become less willing to tolerate dictatorships — and more likely to make aid contingent upon holding elections.

As Marinov explains, "What’s changed these days is that once these guys are in power, they now actually have to rule."