One of the less heralded consequences of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s — and the subsequent financial difficulties of newly independent Russia — was that a major source of foreign aid to poor and developing countries more or less vanished overnight. In a recent article in the British Journal of Political Science, “Coups and Democracy” (available here) we show this may have promoted democracy.
In the ’90s, a new international norm was promoted by the EU and later by the US: in the aftermath of a coup, any new regime must quickly schedule and hold elections. Failure to do so will result in the denial or withholding of foreign aid. With no alternative aid sources, coup leaders in countries dependent on foreign aid were forced to comply. (Note the example of General Salou Djibo of Niger – pictured above – who scheduled and held elections after his coup in 2010, but not before he had secured immunity for himself and his fellow coup plotters.) Thus, as we show in the article, after the fall of the Soviet Union, elections were scheduled and held significantly faster after a coup than before. If they were not, foreign aid was indeed withheld.
This sets up a selection mechanism whereby we systematically no longer see some kinds of coups. Now comes the kind of clever twist that political scientists particularly enjoy. Think of the incentives to potential coup plotters: if they successfully execute a plot, they will have to schedule elections in which the winner will be the median voter. The unpleasant alternative is a lack of funds to pay the troops and keep the economy going. Any coup plotter with policies closer to the median voter than to the current ruler won’t mind: elections will leave him or her better off than under the current leader. But if potential plotters prefer policies closer to those of the current ruler than those of the median voter, elections would leave them worse off after a coup. In anticipation of this sequence of events, such potential plotters may prefer not to launch a coup in the first place. As a result, we end up with fewer coups overall. And indeed, as expected, we did indeed find a structural break in the data in the number of coups after 1992. There are fewer coups overall, because there are fewer coups by extremists but there still are coups by plotters who launch coups that move a country closer to the median voter — and closer to democracy.