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Coups and Democracy

- March 23, 2012

The coup in Mali is widely seen as a major setback for democracy, not just in Mali but potentially in the region as a whole. Coups are indeed the single most important proximate cause of the downfall of democratic governments. Yet, a paper by Hein Goemans and Nikolay Marinov provides some grounds for optimism.

Goemans and Marinov find that since the end of the Cold War most coups are quickly followed by competitive elections and a restoration of democracy. This is especially true for countries dependent on Western aid, which Mali is. The previous version of the paper had a pretty pie chart (seriously) to make that point (see here in my post about an earlier version of the paper) but the graph above tells the story very nicely too. Before the Cold War, levels of democracy (Polity scores) were on average low following a coup and remained low for the foreseeable future. After the Cold War, however, democracy levels generally restore quickly after a coup. Two-thirds of the countries in which a coup was held in the post 1991 period also held competitive elections within five years of that coup. We have no way of knowing whether Mali will fall in the other one third of countries but its odds of returning to democracy are improved by its reliance on Western aid. The abstract is below:

We use new data on coup d’états and elections to uncover a striking development: whereas the vast majority of successful coups before 1991 installed the leader durably in power, after that the picture reverses, with the majority of coups leading to competitive elections. We argue that after the Cold War international pressure influenced the consequences of coups. In the post-Cold War era those countries that are most dependent on Western aid have been the first to embrace competitive elections after the coup. Our theory also sheds light on the pronounced decline in the number of coups since 1991. While the coup d’état has been and still is the single most important factor leading to the downfall of democratic government, our findings indicate that the new generation of coups has been far less nefarious for democracy than their historical predecessors.

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