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The hunt for stable democracy

- August 6, 2014

Thai Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks during a meeting with Thai ambassadors at the Royal Thai Army Headquarters in Bangkok June 11, 2014.  The Thai military took power in a coup on May 22. REUTERS/Chanat Katanyu/Pool
Joshua Tucker: As part of our continuing collaboration with political science journals, the following is a guest post from political scientist Milan Svolik of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign based on his recent publication at the British Journal of Political Science,Which Democracies Will Last? Coups, Incumbent Takeovers, and the Dynamic of Democratic Consolidation.The article will be made available for free by the publisher here for the next 12 months.
The political developments in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring highlight a question that has been at the heart of democratization research for a long time: What are the chances that a country that just held its first competitive election will become a stable democracy?
Consider Egypt: In June 2012, Mohamed Morsi won the first (and only) competitive presidential election since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But soon, concerns emerged about whether the Muslim Brotherhood intended to allow for genuine democratic competition in Egypt: A few months after assuming the presidency, Morsi issued decrees that granted him broad executive and legislative powers, replaced key generals, judges, and prosecutors, and supported a new constitution criticized as overly Islamic.
We will never know whether Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood would have allowed for competitive elections once their term was up. In July 2013, barely a year after he was elected, Morsi was removed from power by the Egyptian military amidst declining popularity and widespread protests by his political opponents.
Egypt’s post-Arab Spring political development illustrates the two most frequent paths toward the breakdown of democracy: the military coup and the executive takeover. The former occurs when the armed or security forces remove a democratically elected government, as in the case of the recent coup in Thailand or the 1973 military overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile. Executive takeovers, meanwhile, occur when a democratically elected incumbent undermines key tenets of democracy, most often by abolishing or manipulating elections. The collapse of the Weimar Republic under Adolf Hitler’s chancellorship is a prominent instance; more recent cases are exemplified by the tenures of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. And in Egypt, one of the most important post-Arab Spring experiments with democracy ended in a military coup amidst suspicions that Morsi might be on the path to an executive takeover.
Existing research on democratization rarely distinguishes between these two very different types of democratic breakdown (for exceptions see here and here.) In a forthcoming article in the British Journal of Political Science, I highlight a number of systematic differences between military coups and executive takeovers.  By my count, among the 90 democratic breakdowns between 1789 and 2008, 55 (or 61 percent) occurred by a military coup and 27 (or 30 percent) followed an executive takeover. (Of the remaining eight, six occurred during a civil war and two during a popular uprising.) Military coups and executive takeovers thus account for the overwhelming majority of democratic breakdowns.
I find that military coups and executive takeovers differ in both their determinants and temporal dynamics. While the risk of both is higher in less developed and stagnating economies, the impact of other factors differs between them. Military coups were the dominant mode of democratic breakdown during the Cold War and are (quite understandably) most likely in former military dictatorships – like Egypt and Thailand. Executive takeovers, meanwhile, tend to occur in new democracies that are rich in natural resources or adopt a presidential constitution – just like Russia and Venezuela.
Crucially, democracies appear to consolidate against the risk of military coups but not against the risk of executive takeovers. That is, we observe a large and durable decline in the risk of a military coup after a democracy survives for about two decades. (My estimates suggest that this decline corresponds to the reduction in the annual risk of a breakdown from 1 in 33 for a new democracy to 1 in 200.)  Put metaphorically, the risk of a coup appears to be a childhood disease: its danger disappears once a democracy survives long enough. By contrast, the accumulation of too much power in the hands of the executive seems to be a persistent threat to democratic stability.
These findings suggest that rather than thinking of democratic breakdowns as a single process, we need to distinguish between military coups and executive takeovers. The two modes of breakdown represent two distinct vulnerabilities within new democracies. In democracies that perish by a coup, elected governments are too weak to retain power in the face of extra-institutional pressures and the threat of organized violence. In democracies that break down due to an executive takeover, elected leaders accumulate enough power to subvert democratic institutions from within. Each represents a distinct political challenge for new democracies.