Demography, Democracy, and Complexity

Five years ago, demographer Richard Cincotta claimed in a piece for Foreign Policy that a country’s age structure is a powerful predictor of its prospects for attempting and sustaining liberal democracy. “A country’s chances for meaningful democracy increase,” he wrote, “as its population ages.” Applying that superficially simple hypothesis to the data at hand, he ventured a forecast:

The first (and perhaps most surprising) region that promises a shift to liberal democracy is a cluster along Africa’s Mediterranean coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, none of which has experienced democracy in the recent past. The other area is in South America: Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, each of which attained liberal democracy demographically “early” but was unable to sustain it. Interpreting these forecasts conservatively, we can expect there will be one, maybe two, in each group that will become stable democracies by 2020.

I read that article when it was published, and I recall being irritated by it. At the time, I had been studying democratization for more than 15 years and was building statistical models to forecast transitions to and from democracy as part of my paying job. Seen through those goggles, Cincotta’s construct struck me as simplistic to the point of naiveté. Democratization is a hard theoretical problem. States have arrived at and departed from democracy by many different pathways, so how could what amounts to a one-variable model possibly have anything useful to say about it?

Revisiting Cincotta’s work in 2014, I like it a lot more for a couple of reasons. First, I like the work better now because I have come to see it as an elegant representation of a larger idea. As Cincotta argues in that Foreign Policy article and another piece he published around the same time, demographic structure is one component of a much broader and more complex syndrome in which demography is both effect and cause. Changes in fertility rates, and through them age structure, are strongly shaped by other social changes like education and urbanization, which are correlated with, but hardly determined by, increases in national wealth.

Of course, that syndrome is what we conventionally call “development,” and the pattern Cincotta observes has a strong affinity with modernization theory. Cincotta’s innovation was to move the focus away from wealth, which has turned out to be unreliable as a driver and thus as a proxy for development in a larger sense, to demographic structure, which is arguably a more sensitive indicator of it. As I see it now, what we now call development is part of a “state shift” occurring in human society at the global level that drives and is reinforced by long-term trends in democratization and violent conflict. As in any complex system, though, the visible consequences of that state shift aren’t evenly distributed.

In this sense, Cincotta’s argument is similar to one I often find myself making about the value of using infant mortality rates instead of GDP per capita as a powerful summary measure in models of a country’s susceptibility to insurgency and civil war. The idea isn’t that dead children motivate people to attack their governments, although that may be one part of the story. Instead, the idea is that infant mortality usefully summarizes a number of other things that are all related to conflict risk. Among those things are the national wealth we can observe directly (if imperfectly) with GDP, but also the distribution of that wealth and the state’s will and ability to deliver basic social services to its citizens. Seen through this lens, higher-than-average infant mortality helps us identify states suffering from a broader syndrome that renders them especially susceptible to violent conflict.

Second, I have also come to appreciate more what Cincotta was and is doing because I respect his willingness to apply his model to generate and publish probabilistic forecasts in real time. In professional and practical terms, that’s not always easy for scholars to do, but doing it long enough to generate a real track record can yield valuable scientific dividends.

In this case, it doesn’t hurt that the predictions Cincotta made six years ago are looking pretty good right now, especially in contrast to the conventional wisdom of the late 2000s on the prospects for democratization in North Africa. None of the five states he lists there yet qualifies as a liberal democracy on his terms, a “free” designation from Freedom House). Still, it’s only 2014, one of them (Tunisia) has moved considerably in that direction, and two others (Egypt and Libya) have seen seemingly frozen political regimes crumble and substantial attempts at democratization ensue. Meanwhile, the long-dominant paradigm in comparative democratization would have left us watching for splits among ruling elites that really only happened in those places as their regimes collapsed, and many area experts were telling us in 2008 to expect more of the same in North Africa as far as the mind could see. Not bad for a “one-variable model.”

Coup Forecasts for 2013

Last January, I posted statistical estimates of coup risk for 2012 that drew some wider interest after they correctly identified Mali as a high-risk case. Now that the year’s almost over, I thought it would be a good time to assess more formally how those 2012 forecasts performed and then update them for 2013.

So, first things first: how did the 2012 forecasts fare on the whole? Pretty well, actually.

For purposes of these forecasts, a coup is defined as “as a forceful seizure of executive authority and office by a dissident/opposition faction within the country’s ruling or political elites that results in a substantial change in the executive leadership and the policies of the prior regime.” That language comes from Monty Marshall’s Center for Systemic Peace, whose data set on coup events serves as the basis for one of the two models used to generate the 2012 forecasts. Those forecasts were meant to assess the risk of any coup attempts at some point during the calendar year, whether those attempts succeed or fail. They were not meant to anticipate civil wars, non-violent uprisings, voluntary transfers of executive authority, autogolpes, or interventions by foreign forces, all of which are better thought of (and modeled) as different forms of political crisis.

Okay, so by that definition, I see two countries where coup attempts occurred in 2012: Mali (in March) and Guinea-Bissau (in April). As it happens, both of those countries ranked in the top 10 in January’s forecasts—Guinea-Bissau at no. 2 and Mali at no. 10—so the models seem to be homing in on the right things. We can get a more rigorous take on the forecasts’ accuracy with a couple of statistics commonly used to assess models that try to predict binary outcomes like these (either a coup attempt happens or it doesn’t):

  • AUC Score. The estimated area under the Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) curve, used as a measure of the ability of a binary classification model to discriminate between positive and negative cases. Specifically, AUC represents the probability that a randomly selected positive case (here, a country-year with coup activity) will have a higher predicted probability than a randomly selected negative case (e.g., country-year with no coup activity). Ranges from 0.5 to 1, with higher values indicating better discrimination.
  • Brier Score. A general measure of forecast performance, defined as the average squared difference between the predicted and observed values. Ranges from 0 to 1, with lower values indicating more accurate predictions.

Assuming that Mali and Guinea-Bissau were the only countries to see coup activity this year, my 2012 coup forecasts get an AUC score of 0.97 and a Brier score of 0.01. Those are really good numbers. Based on my experience trying to forecast other rare political events around the world, I’m pretty happy with any AUC above the low 0.80s and any Brier score that’s better than an across-the-board base-rate forecast. The 2012 coup forecasts surpass both of those benchmarks.

Of course, with just two events in more than 150 countries, these statistics could be very sensitive to changes in the list of coup attempts. Two possible modifications come from Sudan, where authorities claim to have thwarted coup plots in November and December, and Paraguay, where right-wing legislators pushed leftist President Lugo out of office in June. I didn’t count Sudan because country experts tell me those events were probably just a political ploy President Bashir is using to keep his rivals off balance and not actual coup attempts. I didn’t count Paraguay because President Lugo’s rivals used legal procedures, not force, to oust him in a rushed impeachment. I’m pretty confident that neither of those cases counts as a coup attempt as defined here, but for the sake of argument, it’s worth seeing how the addition of those cases would affect the accuracy assessments.

  • Sudan ranked 11th in the 2012 forecasts, just behind Mali, so the addition of an event there leaves the accuracy stats essentially unchanged at 0.96 and 0.02, respectively.
  • Paraguay would definitely count as a surprise. It ranked in the 80s in the 2012 forecasts, and counting its June events as a coup would drop the AUC to 0.80 and the Brier score to 0.02.
  • If we count both cases as yeses, we get an AUC of 0.84 and a Brier score of 0.02.

All of those are still pretty respectable numbers for true forecasts of rare political events, even if they’re not quite as good as the initial ones. Whatever the exact ground truth, these statistics give me some confidence that the two-model average I’m using here makes a useful forecasting tool.

So, without further ado, what about 2013? The chart below plots estimated coup risk for the coming year for the 30 countries at greatest risk using essentially the same models I used for 2012. (One of the two models differs slightly from last year’s; I cut out a couple of variables that had little effect on the estimates and are especially hard to update.) I picked the top 30 because it’s roughly equivalent to the top quintile, and my experience working with models like these tells me that the top quintile makes a pretty good break point for distinguishing between countries at high and low risk. If a country doesn’t appear in this chart, that means my models think it’s highly unlikely to suffer a coup attempt in the coming year.

2013 Coup Risk Estimates

2013 Coup Risk Estimates

The broad strokes are very similar to 2012, but I’m also seeing a few changes worth noting.

  • Consistent with 2012, countries from sub-Saharan Africa continue to dominate the high-risk group. Nine of the top 10 and 22 of the top 30 countries come from that part of the world. One of those 22 is South Sudan, which didn’t get a forecast in early 2012 because I didn’t have the requisite data but now makes an ignominious debut at no. 20. Another is Sudan, which, as Armin Rosen discusses, certainly isn’t getting any more stable. Mali and Guinea-Bissau also both stay near the top of the list, thanks in part to the “coup trap” I discussed in another recent post. Meanwhile, I suspect the models are overestimating the risk of a new coup attempt in Niger, which seems to have landed on firmer footing after its “democratizing” coup in February 2010, but that recent history will leave Niger in the statistical high-risk group until at least 2015.
  • More surprising to me, Timor-Leste now lands in the top 10. That’s a change from 2012, but only because the data used to generate the 2012 forecasts did not count the assassination attempts of 2008 as a coup try. The latest version of CSP’s coup list does consider those events to be failed coup attempt. Layered on top of Timor-Leste’s high poverty and hybrid political authority patterns, that recent coup activity greatly increases the country’s estimated risk. If Timor-Leste makes it through 2013 without another coup attempt, though, its estimated risk should drop sharply next year.
  • In Latin America, Haiti and Ecuador both make it into the Top 20. As with Timor-Leste, the changes from 2012 are artifacts of adjustments to the historical data—adding a coup attempt in Ecuador in 2010 and counting Haiti as a partial democracy instead of a state under foreign occupation. Those artifacts mean the change from 2012 isn’t informative, but the presence of those two countries in the top 20 most certainly is.
  • Syria also pops into the high-risk group at no. 25. That’s not an artifact of data revisions; it’s a reflection of the effects of that country’s devastating state collapse and civil war on several of the risk factors for coups.
  • Finally, notable for its absence is Egypt, which ranks 48th on the 2013 list and has been a source of coup rumors throughout its seemingly interminable transitional period. It’s worth noting though, that if you consider SCAF’s ouster of Mubarak in 2011 to be a successful coup (CSP doesn’t), Egypt would make its way into the top 30.

As always, if you’re interested in the details of the modeling, please drop me a line at and I’ll try to answer your questions as soon as I can.

Update: After a Washington Post blog mapped my Top 30, I produced a map of my own.

Electoral Authoritarianism in Latin America: Important, but Not “New”

Today’s Washington Post includes a long piece by journalist Juan Forero on what he calls Latin America’s “new authoritarians”:

More than two decades after Latin America’s last right-wing dictatorships dissolved, a new kind of authoritarian leader is rising in several countries: democratically elected presidents who are ruling in increasingly undemocratic ways.

Unlike the iron-fisted juntas of a generation ago, these leaders do not assassinate opposition figures or declare martial law.

But in a handful of countries, charismatic populists are posing the most serious challenge to democratic institutions in Latin America since the 1980s, when rebel wars and dictators were the norm. In Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries, leaders have amassed vast powers that they use to control courts while marginalizing their opponents and the media, human rights groups and analysts say.

I’m glad to see the Post devote a bunch of column-inches to a comparative analysis of democratization in a region to which the U.S. really ought to be paying more attention. Most of what we in the U.S. hear about Latin America deals with immigration or drugs, so any thoughtful attempt to grapple with the domestic politics of our nearest neighbors is welcome. I also think the article accurately identifies important patterns in governance in several of the countries it describes.

That said, I have two major beefs with this piece.

First of all, this is not a “new kind of authoritarian leader.” The cases the story emphasizes fit into a broader category of regimes that has become more prevalent in many parts of the world in the past two decades, not just recently and not just in Latin America.

Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call this phenomenon “competitive authoritarianism,” and Andreas Schedler calls it “electoral authoritarianism,” but whatever label we use, the basic form is the same. In these regimes, multiparty elections occur regularly, and ballots are counted correctly, but ruling officials harass political rivals, constrain civil liberties, and bend state resources to ensure that they win anyway. Other important examples can be found in most of the former Soviet Union (e.g., Russia, Armenia, and Georgia), in Asia (e.g., Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore), and in Africa (e.g., Cameroon, Gabon, the Gambia, and Republic of Congo).

This pattern is not even new to Latin America, and in that region, there’s a lot of variation across cases and over time in the extent to which these self-aggrandizing strategies have been employed. Among the cases the article discusses, Venezuela arguably slid from democracy into electoral authoritarianism as far back as 2000, and almost certainly not later than 2005. Ecuador probably fell below the line in 2007, when president Rafael Correa steamrolled the legislature and supreme court to produce a constitution more to his liking, but general elections held in 2009 were substantially fairer. In Bolivia, Evo Morales has tried to push in a similar direction, but those attempts have been partially rebuffed, and the regime has remained basically democratic. Probably the newest cases of electoral authoritarianism in Latin America can be found in Nicaragua and Honduras, the latter since its 2009 coup and the former since Daniel Ortega resolved the constitutional crisis of 2009 in favor of his own ruling party.

Second, charisma and populism do not explain how or why these regimes arise. Neither of these qualities is necessary or sufficient for the emergence of electoral authoritarianism. In Honduras, for example, the post-coup president is not particularly charismatic, and the regime’s policies are more oligarchical or laissez faire than populist. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is beloved by his supporters but reviled by many of his detractors, and those detractors are numerous.

Personally, I think we get a lot farther if we think of these regimes as the end state toward which most attempts at democracy will slide because incumbent officials usually have strong incentives to consolidate their hold on power. As I have discussed again and again on this blog and elsewhere, most attempts at democracy end in a return to authoritarian rule, sometimes by military coup but now more often when elected officials rig the system in their own favor. Those officials don’t need to be particularly charismatic to pull this off, and in many cases, they don’t pursue populist agendas after they do. Above all else, what facilitates this process is the incumbent’s institutional advantage. It’s easy to pull the levers of power when you already have your hands on them, and it’s often quite hard to mobilize resistance against these moves when you’re stuck outside the halls of government. Instead of trying to explain this phenomenon with reference to the personalities and tactics in the many cases where backslides happen, we would probably do better to focus on the idiosyncrasies of the rarer cases where democracy manages to persist.

In fact, I think the over-reliance on charisma and populism as explanations for the emergence of these regimes speaks to a common error in the way many U.S. observers think about the nature of the problem. I get the sense that many U.S. analysts and officials still view Latin America through a Cold War lens that conflates leftist and anti-American policies with authoritarianism. This bias causes them to err on the side of including leftist governments on this list of “bad guys” while excluding more conservative ones. Thus, Bolivia and Ecuador keep landing on the roster of “new authoritarians” in spite of their ambiguities while cases like Honduras are more often overlooked or explained away. In 2003, when Brazil elected a staunchly leftist president for the first time since democracy was restored in the mid-1980s, there was a lot of grumbling in Washington about the threat of an authoritarian turn without a shred of real evidence to support it.

Until we do a better job distinguishing between these various dimensions of politics, we’re going to have a hard time understanding what’s happening—not just in Latin America, but also in the Arab world, Africa, Asia, and even in Europe nowadays. More generally, while I’m always happy to see journalists engaging in this kind of comparative analysis, I would be even happier if they would talk to fewer politicians and activists and more analysts when they do.

Forget the Coup in Mali for a Moment–Why Wasn’t There a Revolution?

At the Monkey Cage, Stanford Ph.D. student Jessica Gottleib posted yesterday on why “we” (by which I think she means Americans) should care about the recent coup in Mali. Most of the analysis of Mali I’ve read since March has focused on explaining the coup itself, which was widely (though not universally) considered a surprise. The country had chosen its national government through competitive, multiparty elections since 1992, and during that time, it saw a peaceful transfer of power between rival parties. Those patterns had convinced many observers that democracy in Mali was more or less permanent, and by that reckoning, the March 2012 coup shouldn’t have happened.

Surprises are crucial opportunities for theory-building, because they tell us that something in our prior models or measures was wrong. I think there’s another aspect of the situation in Mali that’s equally relevant for theories of democratic consolidation, though, and that’s the apparent popularity of the coup after its occurrence. Support for the coup certainly isn’t universal, but it’s higher than we might expect in a country where democratic norms and values were supposed to have taken root. As Gottleib writes,

A budding Malian opinion pollster finds that 64% of his countrymen are satisfied with the coup and 51% blame the current crisis on the deposed regime…Clearly, the majority of Malians were not as satisfied with democracy as the international community once believed.

This support is manifest in street politics. Not long after the coup, a plane carrying a delegation of West African leaders to negotiate with the new junta turned back before it reached Bamako because pro-junta demonstrators were staging a sit-in on the airport tarmac. In May, when those leaders reached a deal with coup leader Capt. Sanogo to keep interim president Dioncounda Traoré in office for a year, thousands of Malians turned out in Bamako to protest the foreign pressure on Sanogo, shouting “Down with Ecowas!” and “Down with Dioncounda!” and eventually attacking Traoré in his office.

Bridges from Bamako blogger Bruce Whitehouse sees the popularity of the coup as “an extreme version of the anti-incumbent fever that periodically sweeps the United States.”

Recently I interviewed a Bamako talk show host who frequently debates politics with listeners phoning in to his program. His callers tend to define politicians as people in power who pursue personal ambitions. “They phone in all the time saying ‘Those people think only of themselves and their interests,’” he told me, “and that’s why some even say ‘We don’t want politicians anymore.’” This sentiment explains strong local support for the junta and its bid to exclude politicians en masse from Mali’s transitional government.

If so many Malians were so fed up with their ruling elites, why wasn’t there a revolution long before the March 2012 coup? I’d be very interested to hear what Malians and area experts have to say about this, but in the meantime, I think social-science theory suggests some promising leads.

One possible answer is what economist Timur Kuran calls “preference falsification.” Writing about the surprising revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, Kuran observes that

People who come to dislike their government are apt to hide their desire for change as long as the opposition seems weak. Because of this preference falsification, a government that appears unshakable might see its support crumble following a slight surge in the opposition’s apparent size, caused by events insignificant in and of themselves. Unlikely though the revolution may have appeared in foresight, it will in hindsight appear inevitable because its occurrence exposes a panoply of previously hidden conflicts.

In the case of Mali, it was the coup itself that seems to have uncovered a stronger desire for change than many outside observers had seen. A coup is hardly an “insignificant event,” but the basic mechanism is the same.

Kuran’s theory emphasizes the role of uncertainty in the production of a revolution, or the lack thereof. Uncertainty induces caution, but that caution may evaporate when some event signals that it’s finally safe for citizens to reveal their true preferences. I’m sure that’s relevant, but I wonder if more conventional collective-action problems aren’t at least as influential. One of the things I’ve learned from my work on democratic breakdowns and mass mobilization is it’s very hard to organize a popular uprising, even in cases where popular frustration is clear. Where Kuran sees incomplete information as the driving force, I’m more inclined to see a couple of more conventional hurdles to collective action.

The first of these hurdles is the well-known free-rider problem. When the benefits of some course of action will be widely shared, it’s hard to convince people to contribute to its production, because unless lots of people pitch in, each person’s narrow slice of those benefits will often be smaller than the expected costs of producing them. I might rather live in a democracy than this dictatorship, but why should I risk my life and career so a bunch of people who can’t be bothered to do the same can enjoy the fruits of my labor? This problem plagues attempts to organize for all kinds of objectives, from collective bargaining with employers to pot-luck dinners, and organizing for national policy change surely lies near the harder end of this spectrum.

The second hurdle I have in mind has to do with expected gains. When popular uprisings do happen in democracies, they rarely succeed, in part because political outsiders lack the means to directly effect major change without breaking the system–and they usually can’t do that, either. If would-be participants are aware that the odds are against them, then it’s going to be even harder to convince them to rebel, because the expected payoff from their actions is going to be much smaller.

We can see this problem clearly in Ecuador in 1997, when a deepening economic crisis helped to drive millions of Ecuadorians to participate in a general strike aimed at forcing President Abdalá Bucaram to resign. The National Assembly responded to this massive show of force by voting to remove the already-controversial Bucaram on grounds of “mental incapacity”–and then installed Assembly leader Fabián Alarcón as his replacement. The end result of this tsunami of popular action was a change in the face of power with no attendant change in the system.

A similar dynamic occurred early this year in the Maldives. After ordering the arrest of the country’s criminal court chief justice, democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed survived several weeks of street protests, only to “resign” when police and military officials allegedly showed up in his office and gave him an ultimatum. According to a Reuters investigation, the immediate beneficiaries of this “coup of opportunity” were not the protesters but the police and soldiers who were allegedly paid off by associates of the ancien regime and the self-same businessmen whose graft cases were thrown out by the criminal court after Nasheed’s departure. Here, protesters played an instrumental role in the termination of democracy, but they seem to have gained little for their efforts.

Citizens were more successful in Bolivia in 2003, when farmers, students, and indigenous groups responded to an unpopular plan to export more natural gas with a wave of strikes, demonstrations, and roadblocks. That uprising drove President Sánchez de Lozada to suspend his plan and then resign, but that resignation had much less impact on national policy than the election several years later of Evo Morales. In other words, it wasn’t until an opposition took power by more conventional channels that it succeeded in changing the system, and even that change has been less radical than many of its agents would like.

The combination of free-rider problems and the inherent difficulties of effecting political change from the outside help to explain why we so rarely see popular uprisings against nominally democratic regimes, even when many citizens are openly dissatisfied or disgusted with the status quo. This pattern matters for theory-building because it suggests that popular attitudes about democracy are less influential than we often presume. Even in democracies, the struggle for national power is primarily an elite affair contested by a small number of fairly insular organizations. Democracies are distinguished by the presence of rules and practices that allow citizens to determine (nominally, at least) the outcome of those contests, to join those organizations, and sometimes even to form new ones, but those rules and practices don’t negate the basic tendency toward oligarchy in all political systems. That’s ironic and sad, but we get better theories when we acknowledge instead of ignoring it.


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