The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Map: The world of coups since 1950

An attempted coup in Turkey last week shocked and surprised many across the world. But coups and attempted coups have long been an all-too-familiar occurrence around the world.

How many exactly? Well, at the time of writing, there have been 475 coup attempts since 1950.

That's according to a dataset compiled by Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, two assistant professors who work in the political science departments of the University of Central Florida and the University of Kentucky respectively.

WorldViews reached out to Powell to ask him some questions about what the definition of a coup is, why a coup happens and what trends we're seeing in coups. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

WorldViews: How do we define a coup in this dataset? What did it mean that Turkey’s 1997 “postmodern” coup wasn’t included, for example?

Jonathan Powell: We define coups as “illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive.”

We don’t code the 1997 “coup” because we can't definitively say the action was actually illegal. Omer Aslan of Bilkent University has written about the event in depth. Even including recent evidence that has come to light, he concludes the military ultimately relied on legal procedures to undermine Erbakan.

[Ed. note: In 1997, generals used pressure behind the scene to force the Islamist government of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan from power. The coup is often described as “postmodern” in Turkey as no military force was actually used.]

WV: There are some pretty big variations on the number of coups in different countries. Do you have any theories for what makes a country more likely to have a coup?

JP: The primary reason for large variation is that once a country has a coup, it very often experiences more. For example, coups are now a bit of a rarity, but in the last decade or so, Mauritania, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Thailand and Madagascar have all had multiple attempts (I could easily be forgetting others).

So the question becomes why did they have the first one? Coups also generally occur in disproportionately poor countries that suffer from other forms of political instability (such as protests and/or civil war). In recent years, there seems to be an increasing proportion of coups in new democracies, especially those that seem to already be backsliding toward authoritarianism. Ultimately, the legitimacy of the government is a crucial indicator.

WV: If you glance at the map, there seem to be regional clusters of coups. Africa and South America seem to have been particularly prone to coups, for example. Do you have any thoughts as to why that might be?

JP: Geographic clusters are likely due to those regions’ countries sharing similar traits. For example, Africa doesn't have more coups than Europe because of its “Africanness,” rather the continent has countries that tend to be poorer and have less developed political institutions.

If you look at Africa, for example, you can actually see large variation within the continent. Poorer regions, like West Africa, are rife with coups, while the more developed southern region has rarely seen them. Cold War politics is certainly one major contributor for both regions, though to be clear Latin America was plagued with coups going back well into the 1800s.

Latin America looks bad historically, but coups are almost extinct in the region. Other than Honduras in 2009, I don’t think there has been a successful coup in the region in the last 20 years.

WV: Overall, the number of coups seems to be falling. Why is that?

JP: The end of the Cold War is important for both direct and indirect reasons. Aside from the U.S. or USSR deliberately attempting to overthrow or support the overthrow of governments, we have seen a radical change in the global economy in recent decades. Africa and Latin America are far wealthier and can attend to the needs of their citizens and soldiers better.

Increased economic interdependence with the rest of the world also gives incentives to support regular political processes (for example, see here and here). Domestic actors don't want to see perceived instability scare off investors or otherwise undermine their economies, while foreign trading partners have an incentive to try to mediate political crises before they get to the point of a coup. Though there are exceptions, coups have become more and more limited to the world’s poorest and most economically isolated countries.

Related, international organizations have adopted anti-coup frameworks that effectively guarantee sanctions against governments born through coups. This simply makes coups less attractive than they would have been in the past.

WV: Is there any reason to believe that this downward trend could change?

JP: It would be very bizarre to see them return to the frequencies seen in the ’60s and ’70s. For coups to make a real comeback we would need to see a variety of factors converging, such as domestic actors thinking the negative aspects of coups are worth the risk and an international community that doesn’t care (or is outwardly supportive).

There hasn’t been much systematic work in this area on coups, but over the long run I think issues like food prices/food security could provide a shock that destabilizes many regimes, but we aren’t there yet. These types of dynamics were essential to the Arab Spring, and I don’t think it would be a stretch to think things like food riots wouldn’t destabilize leaders elsewhere.

More on WorldViews