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Will Thailand's dramatic coup actually fix anything?

- May 29, 2014

A protester, left, is detained by Thai soldiers during an anti-coup demonstration at the Victory Monument in Bangkok, Thailand Saturday, May 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn)
This is a guest post by political scientist Jonathan Powell.
The Thai military’s seizure of power has led to considerable speculation on what Thailand’s future will bring.  Military coups d’état are rarely seen as harbingers of democratic governance.  However, the birth of—or return to—democracy following a coup is more common than most observers think.  Unfortunately, however, coups tend to further democracy in circumstances quite different than those in Thailand.  There, the recent coup isn’t likely to address the challenges that Thailand confronts.
It might seem surprising that coups could lead to democracy at all.  Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz recently showed only 10 percent of states were democratic following coups, compared to over 45 percent following popular revolts.  However, other research — including my own — suggests a more optimistic assessment.
Consider the graph below.  It is based on 22 coups and 15 popular revolts throughout the world between 1992 and 2010.  The figure reports the percentage of states that are democracies in the year of the revolt or coup and in each of the five subsequent years (data here and here).

Graph by Jonathan Powell

Graph by Jonathan Powell

The graph shows that revolts tend to lead to democracies more quickly than do coups.  A year after a revolt, one-third of the states are democracies.  A year after a coup, only 23 percent are democracies.  But the prevalence of democracy continues to grow in both cases: after five years, 57 percent of countries that experienced revolts had established democracy, compared to 46 percent of countries that had experienced coups.  And the rate of democracy after coups may be a little higher still, since some revolts also involve a coup, such as when the armed forces takes over after large-scale anti-regime protests.  These protests, perhaps like those seen in Thailand, can mean the coup is a legitimate effort to further popular will.
Why can coups produce democracy?  One reason is the increased emphasis on democratization after the Cold War, which means that coup-born autocracies are less able to find international donors and more likely to find themselves the target of sanctions.
To be sure, democracy takes root more slowly after a coup than a revolt, as the graph suggests.  Revolts tend to change the political system immediately, as the previous regime is purged and new leadership with popular support is installed.  Coups, however, are more likely to produce a transitional government that will (purportedly, at least) hand power over to a new regime.
Portugal, which recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Carnation Revolution, shows how a coup can produce democracy.  There, a military coup ousted Europe’s oldest dictatorship.  Locals celebrated in the streets and even decorated soldiers’ rifles with the flowers that would earn the “revolution” its name.  The new military government then oversaw the election of an assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution, and after another year Portuguese voters elected a new legislature.  This was slower progress than after some revolts.  For example, only five months after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania experienced its transition to democracy.  But it was nevertheless progress toward democracy.
Similarly, coups can also protect democracy over the long haul.  In the past several years, both the Nigerien and Honduran militaries ousted increasingly authoritarian presidents.
Of course, this is not to say that military coups always help democracy. The Egyptian military’s targeting of groups as diverse as journalists, activists, and the Muslim Brotherhood following its ouster of President Morsi illustrates the opposite, as does Mali’s “plunge into chaos”.
What about Thailand, then?  Here, the situation suggests more cause for concern.  Thailand was already a democracy, which means that the coup could not function like previous “good” coups by promoting democracy or by removing a dictator or increasingly authoritarian leader.  It is far more difficult to accept coups as a solution for political crises in states that already have established a legitimate means to change leadership.
And the coup in Thailand seems unlikely to address the particular political crisis that Thailand is confronting.  Compared to elected politicians, the only advantage that the military has in addressing the crisis is the use of force.  But force alone isn’t enough.  To stabilize Thailand for the long term requires a political solution.  And although the likely scenario is that Thailand will return to democracy in the next few years, the challenge is finding elected leaders who can achieve this solution.