The Dilemma of Getting to Civilian Control

A country can’t really qualify as a democracy without civilian control of its own security forces, but the logic that makes that statement true also makes civilian control hard to achieve, as events in Burkina Faso are currently reminding us.

The essential principle of democracy is popular sovereignty. Civilian control is fundamental to democracy because popular sovereignty requires that elected officials rule, but leaders of security forces—military and police—are not elected. Neither are the leaders of many other influential organizations, of course, but security forces occupy a special status in national affairs by virtue of their particular skills. To perform their designated roles, national rulers must determine and try to implement policies involving the collection of revenue and the production of public goods, including security. To do that, rulers need to wield the threat of coercion, and security forces supply that threat.

That necessity creates a dependency, and that dependency conveys power. In principle—and, historically, often in practice—leaders of security forces can use that dependency as leverage to bargain for bigger budgets or other policies they prefer for parochial reasons. Because those leaders are not held accountable to the public through elections, strong versions of that bargaining contravene the principle of popular sovereignty. Of course, security forces’ specific skills also make them uniquely capable of claiming political authority for themselves at any time. Military leaders rarely flex that muscle, but the threat of a coup only enhances their bargaining power with elected rulers, and thus further constrains popular sovereignty.

This logic implies that democracy only really obtains when state security forces reliably subordinate themselves to the authority of those elected civilian rulers. That arrangement seems clear in principle, but it turns out to be hard to achieve in practice. The problem is that the transition to civilian control demands that security forces concede their power. Organizations of all kinds are rarely excited about doing that, but it is especially hard for rulers to compel security forces to do it, because those forces are the stick those rulers would normally wield in that act of compellence. When pushed, military and police leaders can ask “Or what?” and civilian rulers will rarely have a strong answer. Under those circumstances, attempts to force the issue may have the opposite of their intended effect, provoking security forces into seizing power for themselves as a way to dispatch the civilian threat to their established position.

In short, the problem of getting to civilian control confronts civilian rulers with a dilemma: assert their authority and risk provoking a hard coup, or tolerate security forces’ continuing political power and accept what amounts to a perpetual soft coup.

This dilemma is bedeviling politics in Burkina Faso right now. Last fall, mass demonstrations in Burkina Faso triggered a military coup that toppled longtime autocratic ruler Blaise Compaoré. Under domestic and international pressure, the ensuing junta established a transitional process that is supposed to lead to democratic civilian rule after general elections on October 11, 2015.

Gen. Honore Nabere Traore leads a press conference on October 31, 2014, announcing that he would serve as president following Blaise Compaore's resignation (Photo: Theo Renault/AP)

Gen. Honore Nabere Traore leads an October 2014 press conference announcing that he would serve as president following Blaise Compaore’s apparent resignation. Traore was promptly supplanted by Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, who in November 2014 stepped aside for a civilian interim president, who then appointed Zida to the post of interim prime minister. (Photo: Theo Renault/Associated Press)

On paper, a civilian now rules Burkina Faso as interim president, but attempts to clarify the extent of the interim government’s power, and to circumscribe the role of certain security organs in Burkinabe politics, are generating the expected friction and heat. Here is how Alex Thurston described the situation on his Sahel Blog:

In recent weeks, NGOs and media outlets have buzzed with discussions of tension between the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, a conflict that could, at worst, derail the transition. Although both Zida and Compaore belonged to the RSP in the past, the elite unit has reasons to fear that it will be disbanded and punished: in December, Zida called for its dismantling, and in February, a political crisis unfolded when Zida attempted to reshuffle the RSP’s officer corps (French).

The most recent crisis (French) involves suspicions in some quarters of the government that the RSP was planning to arrest Zida upon his return from a trip to Taiwan – suspicions that were serious enough to make Zida land at a military base instead of at the airport as planned (French). On June 29, the day after Zida got home, gendarmes in the capital questioned three RSP officers, including Lieutenant Colonel Céleste Coulibaly, about their involvement in the suspected plot. That evening, shots were heard coming from the RSP’s barracks, which sits behind the presidential palace. Rumors then spread that Zida was resigning under RSP pressure, but he quickly stated that he was not stepping down.

These incidents have passed without bloodshed, but they have raised fears of an RSP-led coup. For its part, the RSP says (French) that there are no plots, but that it wants Zida and other military officers, such as Minister of Territorial Administration and Security Auguste Barry, to leave the government (French). Both sides accuse the other of seeking to undermine the planned transition. Many observers now look to interim President Michel Kafando to mediate (French) between the parties.

In a recent briefing, the International Crisis Group (ICG) surveyed that landscape and argued in favor of deferring any clear decisions on the RSP’s status until after the elections. Thurston sympathizes with ICG’s view but worries that deferral of those decisions will produce “an atmosphere of impunity.” History says that Thurston is right to worry, but so is ICG. In other words, there are no obvious ways to climb down from the horns of this dilemma.

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Indonesia’s Elections Offer Some Light in the Recent Gloom

The past couple of weeks have delivered plenty of terrible news, so I thought I would take a moment to call out a significant positive development: Indonesia held a presidential election early this month; there were no coup attempts and little violence associated with that balloting; and the contest was finally won by the guy who wasn’t threatening to dismantle democracy.

By my reckoning, this outcome should increase our confidence that Indonesia now deserves to be called a consolidated democracy, where “consolidated” just means that the risk of a reversion to authoritarian rule is low. Democracies are most susceptible to those reversions in their first 15–20 years (here and here), especially when they are poor and haven’t yet seen power passed from one party to another (here).

Indonesia now looks reasonably solid on all of those counts. The current democratic episode began nearly 15 years ago, in 1999, and the country has elected three presidents from as many parties since then—four if we count the president-elect. Indonesia certainly isn’t a rich country, but it’s not exactly poor any more, either. With a GDP per capita of approximately $3,500, it now lands near the high end of the World Bank’s “lower middle income” tier. Together, those features don’t describe a regime that we would expect to be immune from authoritarian reversal, but the elections that just occurred put that system through a major stress test, and it appears to have passed.

Some observers would argue that the country’s democratic regime already crossed the “consolidated” threshold years ago. When I described Indonesia as a newly consolidated democracy on Twitter, Indonesia specialist Jeremy Menchik noted that colleagues William Liddle and Saiful Mujani had identified Indonesia as being consolidated since 2004 and said that he agreed with them. Meanwhile, democratization experts often use the occurrence of one or two peaceful transfers of power as a rule of thumb for declaring democracies consolidated, and Indonesia had passed both of those tests before the latest election campaign even began.

Of course, it’s easy to say in hindsight that the risk of an authoritarian reversal in Indonesia around this election was low. We shouldn’t forget, though, that there was a lot of anxiety during the campaign about how the eventual loser, Prabowo Subianto, might dismantle democracy if he were elected, and in the end he only lost by a few percentage points. What’s more, the kind of “reforms” at which Prabowo hinted are just the sorts of things that have undone many other attempts at democracy in the past couple of decades. There were also rumors of coup plots, especially during the nerve-wracking last few weeks of the campaign until the official results were announced (see here, for example). Some seasoned observers of Indonesian politics with whom I spoke were confident at the time that those plots would not come to pass, but the fact that those rumors existed and were anxiously discussed in some quarters suggests that they were at least plausible, even if they weren’t probable. Last but not least, statistical modeling by Milan Svolik suggests that a middle-income presidential democracy like Indonesia’s won’t really be “cured” of its risk of authoritarian reversal until it gets much wealthier (see the actuarial tables on p. 43 in this excellent paper, which was later published in the American Political Science Review).

Even bearing those facts and Milan’s tables in mind, I think it’s fair to say that Indonesia now qualifies as a consolidated democracy, in the specific sense that the risk of an authoritarian reversal is now quite small and will remain so. If that’s right, then four of the world’s five most populous countries now fit under that label. The democratic regimes in India, the United States, Indonesia, and Brazil—roughly 2 billion citizens among them—all have lots of flaws, but the increased prevalence and persistence of democracy among the world’s largest countries is still a very big deal in the long course of human affairs. And, who knows, maybe China will finally join them in the not-too-distant future?

Ripple Effects from Thailand’s Coup

Thailand just had another coup, its first since 2006 but its twelfth since 1932. Here are a few things statistical analysis tells us about how that coup is likely to reverberate through Thailand’s economy and politics for the next few years.

1. Economic growth will probably suffer a bit more. Thailand’s economy was already struggling in 2014, thanks in part to the political instability to which the military leadership was reacting. Still, a statistical analysis I did a few years ago indicates that the coup itself will probably impose yet more drag on the economy. When we compare annual GDP growth rates from countries that suffered coups to similarly susceptible ones that didn’t, we see an average difference of about 2 percentage points in the year of the coup and another 1 percentage point the year after. (See this FiveThirtyEight post for a nice plot and discussion of those results.) Thailand might find its way to the “good” side of the distribution underlying those averages, but the central tendency suggests an additional knock on the country’s economy.

2. The risk of yet another coup will remain elevated for several years. The “coup trap” is real. Countries that have recently suffered successful or failed coup attempts are more likely to get hit again than ones that haven’t. This increase in risk seems to persist for several years, so Thailand will probably stick toward the top of the global watch list for these events until at least 2019.

3. Thailand’s risk of state-led mass killing has nearly tripled…but remains modest. The risk and occurrence of coups and the character of a country’s national political regime feature prominently in the multimodel ensemble we’re using in our atrocities early-warning project to assess risks of onsets of state-led mass killing. When I recently updated those assessments using data from year-end 2013—coming soon to a blog near you!—Thailand remained toward the bottom of the global distribution: 100th of 162 countries, with a predicted probability of just 0.3%. If I alter the inputs to that ensemble to capture the occurrence of this week’s coup and its effect on Thailand’s regime type, the predicted probability jumps to about 0.8%.

That’s a big change in relative risk, but it’s not enough of a change in absolute risk to push the country into the end of the global distribution where the vast majority of these events occur. In the latest assessments, a risk of 0.8% would have placed Thailand about 50th in the world, still essentially indistinguishable from the many other countries in that long, thin tail. Even with changes in these important risk factors and an ongoing insurgency in its southern provinces, Thailand remains in the vast bloc of countries where state-led mass killing is extremely unlikely, thanks (statistically speaking) to its relative wealth, the strength of its connection to the global economy, and the absence of certain markers of atrocities-prone regimes.

4. Democracy will probably be restored within the next few years… As Henk Goemans and Nikolay Marinov show in a paper published last year in the British Journal of Political Science, since the end of the Cold War, most coups have been followed within a few years by competitive elections. The pattern they observe is even stronger in countries that have at least seven years of democratic experience and have held at least two elections, as Thailand does and has. In a paper forthcoming in Foreign Policy Analysis that uses a different measure of coups, Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne see that same broad pattern. After the 2006 coup, it took Thailand a little over a year to get back to a competitive elections for a civilian government under a new constitution. If anything, I would expect this junta to move a little faster, and I would be very surprised if the same junta was still ruling in 2016.

5. …but it could wind up right back here again after that. As implied by nos. 1 and 2 above, however, the resumption of democracy wouldn’t mean that Thailand won’t repeat the cycle again. Both statistical and game-theoretic models indicate that prospects for yet another democratic breakdown will stay relatively high as long as Thai politics remains sharply polarized. My knowledge of Thailand is shallow, but the people I read or follow who know the country much better skew pessimistic on the prospects for this polarization ending soon. From afar, I wonder if it’s ultimately a matter of generational change and suspect that Thailand will finally switch to a stable and less contentious equilibrium when today’s conservative leaders start retiring from their jobs in the military and bureaucracy age out of street politics.

The Arab Spring and the Limits of Understanding

Last week, the online magazine Muftah ran a thoughtful piece by Scott Williamson and Caroline Abadeer about “why Arab Spring protests successfully produced regime change in some countries but not in others.” As they see it,

Understanding the outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings requires answering the three interlinked questions about the region’s unrest posed here. First, where did protests transform into uprisings that could sufficiently threaten the regime’s hold on power? We have argued monarchies and oil-wealthy regimes can erect more barriers to prevent protest escalation, and thereby protect the government. Next, we asked why militaries abandoned regimes in some countries where uprisings occurred, but cracked down violently on the opposition in others. We have suggested that a military tied to the regime by familial, tribal, ethnic, or sectarian connections would be more likely to support the regime. Finally, in cases where the military repressed the opposition, we asked why such repression was successful in some countries but not in others. Because resources are important in this regard, we have argued that oil-wealthy regimes were more likely to successfully repress their opponents, and that resources brought to bear by foreign powers for or against the regime could also have a significant impact on the outcome.

Their essay is grounded in careful study of relevant theory and the societies they describe, and the array of contingent effects they identify all seem plausible. Still, I wonder if the authors are too confident in the explanatory power of their discoveries. As it happens, the Arab Spring has largely followed gross patterns in democratization from the past century or so. Popular uprisings rarely occur in consolidated authoritarian regimes, and when they do, the regime usually survives. When authoritarian regimes break down, another autocracy usually ensues. In cases where an attempt at democracy does happen, it usually fails, either by military coup or by the ruling party’s unfair consolidation of power.

The rules of thumb I just described overlook a lot, including virtually all of the features that people who live in or closely follow politics in those societies would care deeply about. That gross simplification doesn’t make them wrong, though. In fact, their absurd simplicity may be a more accurate representation of the limits of our knowledge than the more elaborate maps we draw with the benefit of hindsight. Sometimes we can grasp the generalities but still struggle with the specifics.

This state of affairs is not unique to the social sciences. A while back, the Guardian carried a story about the problem of limestone rot in historic British buildings. As the piece described,

The gargoyles at York Minster are losing their grimaces, pinnacles are turning to powder at Lincoln Cathedral and Wells Cathedral in Somerset has already lost most of its beautiful statues on the west face. Hundreds of years worth of grime and British weather are taking their toll on these treasured historic buildings, with the limestone they are made from simply being eaten away.

Because these structures are treasured, scientists set to work on trying to learn more about this rot in hopes of finding ways to slow or stop it. Even in the supposedly more predictable world of the “natural” sciences, though, this puzzle turns out to be quite a challenge.

[Researchers] already know what makes limestone decay. Chemicals such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from air pollution react with the stone to make it dissolve. This sometimes creates a hard, black, gypsum crust on the outside, leaving a soft, crumbly stone underneath. Road salt is a modern-day scourge, spraying on to the base of walls and eating into the stone. And rain, wind and snow can also cause problems, with winter freeze-thaw cycles forcing open cracks.

But the manner in which limestone erodes is puzzling. “We often see a single block of limestone get hollowed out, while others around it remain fresh,” said Dr Viles. It is not clear what makes one block more vulnerable than another.

The struggles of these researchers who understand the relevant causal mechanisms much better than we political scientists do remind us that we should remain open to the possibility of constrained randomness. The odds of a revolutionary moment vary in grossly visible ways, but they are still just odds. As sailors and cyclists can tell you, sometimes a squall hits when the weatherman said it would almost certainly stay dry. That doesn’t mean the models behind that forecast were fundamentally flawed, and our ability to see in retrospect how that storm arose doesn’t always make future ones any more predictable. Maybe the scientists studying limestone rot have finally figured out what makes one block more vulnerable than another and can now accurately predict which stones and statues will go soonest. Given the limited state of our knowledge about human social dynamics and the extreme complexity of the systems involved, I am not optimistic that social scientists will soon achieve a similar level of understanding, and thus foresight, about the transformation of political institutions.

To be clear, I do not think that the kind of post hoc analysis in which Williamson and Abadeer engage is fruitless. On the contrary, after-the-fact process-tracing and comparative analysis, be it narrative or statistical, is fundamental to the development of new ideas about what causes the phenomena we study. We may not understand a lot, but we certainly understand a lot more than we did a few hundred years ago, and this repetitive and meandering interplay of deduction, prediction, and observation is why. We just need to be careful not to get too cozy with the stories we spin when we look backwards, to succumb to what Daniel Kahneman aptly calls “the illusion of understanding.” The real test of our discoveries’ explanatory power isn’t their ability to make sense of the cases from which they were constructed; it’s their ability to help anticipate the occurrence and outcomes of the next batch. If authors like Williamson and Abadeer really want to test the inferences they’re drawing from the Arab Spring, they should start telling us what those inferences foretell about the prospects for, and outcomes of, future tumult in that part of the world.

Personally, I remain optimistic about broad trends and uncertain of the details. Many of the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa may still look firm, but that doesn’t mean their foundations aren’t rotting. When those blocks do visibly crumble, the same meso– and macro-level systemic forces that have been driving the spread of democratic institutions for a while will probably drive these societies in that direction, too. As with the Arab Spring, we can expect a lot of variation in the timing and details, and we can expect some reversions to authoritarian rule to follow, but nothing yet leads me to believe that the now-familiar rules of thumb have stopped working.

One Outsider’s Take on Thailand

Justin Heifetz at the Bangkok Post asked me this morning for some comments on the current political situation in Thailand. Here is a slightly modified version of what I wrote in response to his questions.

I won’t speak to the specifics of Thai culture or social psychological theories of political behavior, because those things are outside my areas of expertise. What I can talk about are the strategic dilemmas that make some countries more susceptible to coups and other breakdowns of democracy than others. Instead of thinking in terms of a “coup culture”, I think it’s useful to ask why the military in the past and opposition parties now might prefer an unelected government to an elected one.

In the case of Thailand, it’s clear that some opposition factions recognize that they cannot win power through fair elections, and those factions are very unhappy with the policies enacted by the party that can. There are two paths out of that conundrum: either seize power directly through rebellion, or find a way to provoke or facilitate a seizure of power by another faction more sympathetic to your interests—in this and many other cases, the military. Rebellions are very hard to pull off, especially for minority factions, so that often leaves them with trying to provoke a coup as their only viable option. Apparently, Suthep Thaugsuban and his supporters recognize this logic and are now pursuing just such a strategy.

The big question now is whether or not the military leadership will respond as desired. They would be very likely to do so if they coveted power for themselves, but I think it’s pretty clear from their actions that many of them don’t. I suspect that’s partly because they saw after 2006 that seizing power didn’t really fix anything and carried all kinds of additional economic and reputational costs. If that’s right, then the military will only seize power again if the situation degenerates enough to make the costs of inaction even worse—say, into sustained fighting between rival factions, like we see in Bangladesh right now.

So far, Pheu Thai and its supporters seem to understand this risk and have mostly avoided direct confrontation in the streets. According to Reuters this morning, though, some “red shirt” activists are now threatening to mobilize anew if Suthep & co. do not back down soon. A peaceful demonstration of their numbers would remind the military and other fence-sitters of the electoral and physical power they hold, but it could also devolve into the kind of open conflict that might tempt the military to reassert itself as the guarantor of national order. Back on 1 December, red shirts cut short a rally in a Bangkok stadium after aggressive actions by their anti-government rivals led to two deaths and dozens of injuries, and there is some risk that fresh demonstrations could produce a similar situation.

On how or why this situation has escalated so quickly, I’d say that it didn’t really. This is just the latest flare-up of an underlying process of deep socio-economic and political transformation in Thailand that accelerated in the early 2000s and probably isn’t going to reach a new equilibrium of sorts for at least a few more years. Earlier in this process, the military clearly sided with conservative factions struggling to beat back the political consequences of this transformation for reasons that close observers of Thai politics surely understand much better than I. We’ll see soon if they’ve finally given up on that quixotic project.

Whatever happens this time around, though, the good news is that within a decade or so, Thai politics will probably stabilize into a new normal in which the military no longer acts directly in politics and parts of what’s now Pheu Thai and its coalition compete against each other and the remnants of today’s conservative forces for power through the ballot box.

Follow-Up on Bangladesh

Per BBC News this morning:

Bangladesh is entering a new phase of violence and uncertainty triggered by the opposition’s objections to elections due to be held on 5 January. In recent days the country has been paralysed by violent strikes and transport blockades. The BBC’s Bengali editor Sabir Mustafa in Dhaka says that there is now increasing speculation that a state of emergency may be declared to pull the country back from the brink…

Since 25 October they have held general strikes and road-rail blockades, leading to widespread violence and hitting the economy hard.

Dozens of vehicles have been burned or damaged by blockade supporters on the only highway linking the port city of Chittagong with the capital Dhaka. The all-important garments industry, which accounts for nearly 80% of Bangladesh’s exports, has been unable to make shipments for a week.

”If the current crisis continues for another month, then the whole economy will stumble to a halt and it will be very difficult to recover from it,” said Rubana Huq, managing director of the Mohammadi Group, a major garments exporting firm.

In a late-October post, I used Bangladesh as an example of “the political muddles that trap most countries for decades on a sine wave of democratization and de-democratization, and why durable exits from those oscillations are so hard to come by.” I concluded:

The histories of Europe and Latin America imply that Bangladesh will eventually find a way out of these oscillations onto a new equilibrium that includes durable democracy. Unfortunately, the history of countries born in the past half-century—never mind a cursory look at the politics on the streets of Dhaka right now—suggests this election cycle probably isn’t the moment that’s going to happen.

Things could still turn for the better, and this crisis could lead to a resolution that puts democracy in Bangladesh on firmer footing. That said, the latest news from BBC does not make me optimistic.

In fact, my statistical assessments of coup risk for 2013 lead me to believe that the prospects of another extra-constitutional seizure of power in Bangladesh in the near future are no longer small. That’s what happened when things last reached this kind of fever pitch in 2007, and Bangladesh’s presence among the 20 most coup-susceptible countries in the world this year suggests there’s a sizable chance we’ll see a similar turn of events again before election day on 5 January. If I treat the annual statistical forecast as my prior and use Bayes’ rule and some back-of-the-envelope estimates about the relationship between unrest this intense and coup risk to update it, I assess the probability of a coup attempt in Bangladesh in the run-up to elections at about 30 percent.

That may not sound like much, but it’s a lot higher than the estimate of about 10 percent I get when I do a similar exercise for Thailand right now, where a somewhat similar process is unfolding. In other words, if I had to pick between Bangladesh or Thailand as the country more likely to see a coup attempt in the next several weeks, I would bet on Bangladesh.

Bangladesh as Archetype of Contemporary Political Development

If you want to get a feel for the political muddles that trap most countries for decades on a sine wave of democratization and de-democratization, and why durable exits from those oscillations are so hard to come by, you might want to take a look at Bangladesh.

Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a genocidal struggle that left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced tens of millions. Since then, the country has roughly split its time between democratic and authoritarian rule. As happened in many newly independent states in the twentieth century, the champions of national independence came to power through elections and then refused to leave. Also typically, the one-party regime born of that refusal soon fell to a restive military. Seventeen years passed before another fairly-elected civilian government came to power, starting the longest spell of more or less democratic government in the country’s still-short history.

Over the ensuing two decades, the core feature of politics in Bangladesh has been acute polarization. Whenever elections approach, the rival Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) engage in bitter public showdowns that bring tens of thousands of supporters into the streets and often produce low-level violence on the margins. Unsurprisingly, the two parties carry that same animosity into government. “Once a party is in power in Bangladesh,” the Economist recently noted, “it is the unalterable tradition to declare nearly everything decreed by your opponents to be null and void.”

Meanwhile, the military has continued to play a more active role in politics than democratic theory would allow. In 2007, as elections approached and the cyclical clash between the AL and BNP cranked up, Bangladesh’s military leaders apparently saw intervention as the lesser of a few evils and tossed their civilian rulers. Two years passed under a caretaker government of the military’s choosing. Civilian supremacy returned at the end of 2008, when the AL won elections widely regarded as the fairest in Bangladesh’s history, but according to the International Crisis Group, Bangladesh’s military remains “visibly restive”:

On 19 January [2012, the military] announced it had foiled a coup by mid-level and retired officers who sought to install an Islamist government. This followed an assassination attempt on an AL member of parliament in October 2009 by mid-level officers seething over the deaths of 57 officers in a mutiny by their subordinate paramilitary border guards the previous February. Large-scale dismissals, forced retirements, deepening politicisation and a heavy-handed approach to curb dissent and root out militants have created an unstable and undisciplined force.

The systemic result of this struggle between two political rivals and the military is the familiar “truel,” or Mexican standoff, that characterizes politics in many countries stuck between stable dictatorship and durable democracy. The defining feature of this standoff is each player’s uncertainty about its rivals’ intentions; no one trusts that the others won’t make a grab for power and then shut out or destroy the others. That uncertainty, in turn, sharply increases the odds of undemocratic behavior, because even players fully committed to democracy in principle might feel pressed to cement or usurp power in order to block their distrusted rivals from doing the same to them first.

Now, in late 2013, elections are due again, and Bangladesh seems to be spiraling toward another local climax of this cyclical confrontation. As Reuters reports, the AL and BNP have called competing rallies in the capital this Friday, and at least one party leader has told followers to come “prepared with arms.” Already this year, state security forces have killed scores of protesters  in unrest spawned by the workings of a war-crimes tribunal that many BNP sympathizers see as a political bludgeon directed against them. According to my statistical forecasts, Bangladesh ranks among the 20 countries in the world most susceptible to coup attempts this year, a result that confirms many observers’ concerns that the military might respond to wider disorder as it did in 2007.

So how does a country get off of this roller coaster? Attempts to induce democratic consolidation often focus on institutional design, but Bangladesh shows how this prescription is more easily written than filled.

One of the focal points in the current confrontation is the AL government’s recent decision to dispense with an arrangement whereby a caretaker body would replace the elected government in the run-up to elections. The BNP has cast that decision as an attempt by the ruling AL to tilt the upcoming election in its own favor. Ironically, though, the caretaker arrangement has often been the focal point of mutual recriminations in past elections, as the two parties would fight over whether or not the caretakers were sufficiently unbiased.

In other words, the system that was meant to dampen that mutual distrust only seemed to end up stoking it, but when one party finally made a change, that act is seen through the same lens. The fundamental problem with expecting rule changes to induce democratic consolidation is that the process of institutional design and change is itself political, so it is subject to the same pathologies and touches off the same worries.

Outsiders can also exhort party leaders to negotiate in good faith, but parties aren’t unitary actors. Those leaders sit atop a massive pyramid of principal-agent problems, and internal rivals often respond opportunistically to attempts at compromise by stoking fears of capitulation and offering themselves as the bulwark against it. Aware of this risk, those leaders rarely take the first step.

The histories of Europe and Latin America imply that Bangladesh will eventually find a way out of these oscillations onto a new equilibrium that includes durable democracy. Unfortunately, the history of countries born in the past half-century—never mind a cursory look at the politics on the streets of Dhaka right now—suggests this election cycle probably isn’t the moment that’s going to happen.

There Are No “Best Practices” for Democratic Transitions

I’ve read two pieces in the past two days that have tried to draw lessons from one or more cases about how policy-makers and practitioners can improve the odds that ongoing or future democratic transitions will succeed by following certain rules or formulas. They’ve got my hackles up, so figured I’d use the blog to think through why.

The first of the two pieces was a post by Daniel Brumberg on Foreign Policy‘s Middle East Channel blog entitled “Will Egypt’s Agony Save the Arab Spring?” In that post, Brumberg looks to Egypt’s failure and “the ups and downs of political change in the wider Arab world” to derive six “lessons or rules” for leaders in other transitional cases. I won’t recapitulate Brumberg’s lessons here, but what caught my eye was the frequent use of prescriptive language, like “must be” and “should,” and the related emphasis on the “will and capacity of rival opposition leaders” as the crucial explanatory variable.

The second piece came in this morning’s New York Times, which included an op-ed by Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, entitled “Can Egypt Learn from Thailand?” As Tepperman notes, Thailand has a long history of military coups, and politics has been sharply polarized there for years, but it’s still managed to make it through a rough patch that began in the mid-2000s with just the one coup in 2006 and no civil war between rival national factions. How?

The formula turns out to be deceptively simple: provide decent, clean governance, compromise with your enemies and focus on the economy.

This approach is common in the field of comparative democratization, and I’ve even done a bit of it myself.  I think scholars who want to make their work on democratization useful to policy-makers and other practitioners often feel compelled to go beyond description and explanation into prescription, and these lists of “best practices” are a familiar and accessible form in which to deliver this kind of advice. In the business world, the archetype is the white paper based on case studies of a one or a few successful firms or entrepreneurs: look what Google or Facebook or Chipotle did and do it, too. In comparative democratization, we often get studies that find things that happened in successful cases but not in failed ones (or vice versa) and then advise practitioners to manufacture the good ones (e.g., pacts, fast economic growth) and avoid the bad (e.g., corruption, repression).

Unfortunately, I think these “best practices” pieces almost invariably succumb to what Nassim Taleb calls the narrative fallacy, as described here by Daniel Kahneman (p. 199):

Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen.

The narrative fallacy is intertwined with outcome bias. Per Kahneman (p. 203),

We are prone to blame decision makers for good decisions that worked out badly and to give them too little credit for successful moves that appear obvious only after the fact… Actions that seem prudent in foresight can look irresponsibly negligent in hindsight [and vice versa].

When I read Tupperman’s “deceptively simple” formula for the survival of democracy and absence of civil war in Thailand, I wondered how confident he was seven or five or two years ago that Yingluck Shinawatra was doing the right things, and that they weren’t going to blow up in her and everyone else’s faces. I also wonder how realistic he thinks it would have been for Morsi and co. to have “provide[d] decent, clean governance” and “focus[ed] on the economy” in ways that would have worked and wouldn’t have sparked backlashes or fresh problems of their own.

Brumberg’s essay gets a little more distance from outcome bias than Tepperman’s does, but I think it still greatly overstates the power of agency and isn’t sufficiently sympathetic to the complexity of the politics within and between relevant organizations in transitional periods.

In Egypt, for example, it’s tempting to pin all the blame for the exclusion of political rivals from President Morsi’s cabinet, the failure to overhaul the country’s police and security forces, and the broader failure “to forge a common vision of political community” (Brumberg’s words) on the personal shortcomings of Morsi and Egypt’s civilian political leaders, but we have to wonder: given the context, who would have chosen differently, and how likely is it that those choices would have produced very different outcomes? Egypt’s economy is suffering from serious structural problems that will probably take many years to untangle, and anyone who thinks he or she knows how to quickly fix those problems is either delusional or works at the IMF. Presidents almost never include opposition leaders in their cabinets; would doing so in Egypt really have catalyzed consensus, or would it just have led to a wave of frustrated resignations a few months down the road? Attempting to overhaul state security forces might have helped avert a coup and prevent the mass killing we’re seeing now, but it might also have provoked a backlash that would have lured the military back out of the barracks even sooner. And in how many countries in the world do political rivals have a “common vision of political community”? We sure don’t in the United States, and I’m hard pressed to think of how any set of politicians here could manufacture one. So why should I expect politicians in Egypt or Tunisia or Libya to be able to pull this off?

Instead of advice, I’ll close with an observation: many of the supposed failures of leadership we often see in cases where coups or rebellions led new democracies back to authoritarian rule or even state collapse are, in fact, inherent to the politics of democratic transitions. The profound economic problems that often help create openings for democratization don’t disappear just because elected officials start trying harder. The distrust between political factions that haven’t yet been given any reason to believe their rivals won’t usurp power at the first chance they get isn’t something that good intentions can easily overcome. As much as I might want to glean a set of “best practices” from the many cases I’ve studied, the single generalization I feel most comfortable making is that the forces which finally tip some cases toward democratic consolidation remain a mystery, and until we understand them better, we can’t pretend to know how to control them.

N.B. For a lengthy exposition of the opposing view on this topic, read Giuseppe Di Palma’s To Craft Democracies. For Di Palma, “Democratization is ultimately a matter of political crafting,” and “democracies can be made (or unmade) in the act of making them.”

More Shots Fired in Egypt’s Transitional “Truel”

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are expected to take to the streets on June 30 to press for the resignation of President Morsi and his government, and the impending confrontation between these protesters, the government’s supporters, and state security forces has lots of people on edge. Here’s how Tarek Radwan set the scene in a recent post on Foreign Policy‘s Mideast Channel blog:

What began as a humble attempt to translate countrywide discontent with the way President Mohamed Morsi has governed Egypt, the Tamarod — or “Rebel” campaign — has mobilized millions of Egyptians for a protest that promises to be epic on the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. Although opposition forces initially kept the signature drive that demands Morsi’s removal from office and early elections at arms length, nearly all of the relevant players in Egypt’s transitional drama now recognize the campaign’s significance and potential to affect change. Movement within the political opposition, including coordination meetings with the campaign and youth groups for a post-Morsi transition plan, suggests a fundamental belief that the June 30 protests could realize Tamarod’s goal of replacing the president.

Islamists who support Morsi’s government, primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood, responded with a counter-signature drive of their own called Tagarrod — or “Impartiality” — to reiterate their faith (no pun intended) in the political system and the elections that brought him to power. Supportive Islamist groups have also called for a June 21 protest against violence. However, the counter-campaign’s attempt to balance the scales only seems to accentuate the country’s deeply divided polity.

Meanwhile, the army has responded ominously to the planned mass protests, issuing a public warning that it will “not allow an attack on the will of the people” and a calling instead for dialogue and (ha!) consensus.

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In a recent column for Egypt’s online Daily News, activist and one-time candidate for parliament Mahmoud Salem sketched three scenarios for how this latest confrontation ends: 1) a clear victory for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), 2) a clear victory for the Tamarod campaign, or 3) a military coup. The forms the latter two outcomes would take are clearest: the government resigns and fresh elections are held, or the military tosses out the government and installs itself or a government of its choosing in power. It’s less clear to me what an “outright victory” for the MB would look like, but Salem seems to have in mind a violent routing of the organized opposition with the cooperation or at least complicity of the military. Salem sees the third scenario (military intervention) as the most likely one but acknowledges that the situation is highly uncertain.

For reasons that are probably narcissistic but I’d like to think are intellectual, I’m struck by how closely Salem’s scenarios and outcomes match up with the game-theoretic model I use to analyze the politics of democratic consolidation and breakdown. This model portrays politics in newer democracies as a kind of “truel“—a lousy neologism for a three-way version of a duel—involving two rival political factions and the military. In principle, any of those three groups can usurp power at at any time. Election winners can rig the game to ensure that they keep winning; election losers can overthrow the government by revolutionary means; and the military can carry out a coup.

In the metaphor of a truel, attempts to usurp or defend power are like shots fired at different rivals. As in a real gunfight, those shots don’t always hit or kill, and rivals can also choose not to fire. In many new democracies and other “transitional” cases, it’s easy to imagine one or two or even all three of these actors attempting to hoard or usurp power (i.e., take a shot) at almost any time, and it’s also easy to imagine most of those attempts failing.

Democracy is effectively consolidated when all of those actors routinely abide by and uphold democratic procedures, especially but not limited to fair elections and freedoms of speech, association, and assembly. The risk of these usurpations of power never gets to zero, but in some long-standing democracies it’s awfully close to it. That’s the truel equivalent of everyone agreeing to put their guns away and resolve their disputes in other ways. In the real world, military coups have become less common than they were during the Cold War, and revolutions rarely succeed in overthrowing elected governments. Consolidations of incumbent advantage aren’t hard to find, though, and attempts at all three forms of usurpation are still common in the “life courses” of newer democracies.

So what can the truel metaphor tell us about Egypt? First, it’s evident that Salem’s three scenarios exclude an important fourth scenario in which everyone either misses or holds his fire. If the June 30 protests don’t force out the Morsi government, inspire a military coup, or lure MB supporters into widespread counterrevolutionary violence, this latest round could come and go without producing dramatic changes in the political landscape. Based on the outcome of the last couple of confrontational moments in Egyptian politics and the fractiousness of the Tamarod coalition, I’d say this is probably the most likely outcome.

The truel metaphor also raises some questions about the wisdom of the opposition’s decision to press revolutionary demands through mass unrest. This is the political equivalent of shooting at the incumbent, but game theorists will tell you that the optimal strategy for the weakest player in a truel is often to hold fire or to miss on purpose. That’s because the dominant strategy for the two strongest players is usually going to be to try to eliminate the other, so the weakest player can often do well by letting that confrontation play out, leaving him in a showdown with the lone survivor, possibly even with the advantage of getting to shoot first at a now-damaged rival.

In Egypt right now, I’d say the MB and the military are clearly the two strongest players, while the groups behind the Tamarod campaign are still the weakest. If that’s right, then the maximalist strategy Salem and his cohort are pursuing is probably quixotic. As Salem acknowledges, this attempt to oust the MB is unlikely to succeed, but the act of trying is probably increasing the risks of both a military coup and a deeper consolidation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on power by strengthening those groups’ fear of a revolution, and thus their incentives to preempt or respond to that threat with a crackdown or coup of their own.

Of course, that might be exactly what some of the participants in the Tamarod campaign are hoping for. Some of the MB’s rivals have openly called for a military coup against the Morsi government as their best hope for a “reset” of Egypt’s transition, and the occurrence of sustained mass unrest is, at this point, probably the only thing capable of making that happen. By attempting another revolution—or a counter-counterrevolution, depending on whom you ask—these factions are probably looking to draw the Brotherhood’s supporters into a fight that would, in turn, lure the military into a coup. What looks a little crazy on the surface may turn out to be crazy like a fox.

Last but not least, careful consideration of the current moment in Egyptian politics shows how the truel metaphor elides the possibility of bargaining among the players. After writing a draft of this post yesterday, I discussed it with Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. As Michael pointed out to me, there’s really a fifth scenario here, too, in which the military uses the credible threat of a coup to compel the MB government into a political deal designed to halt the spiral of polarization that keeps producing these showdowns. The military seems like it really doesn’t want to be responsible for governing Egypt right now, but it probably wants even less to see the country descend into a period of sustained mass violence. One way to try to achieve both of those goals would be to give the government an ultimatum: accept a compromise with the opposition or get shot at from two sides at once. If I had to lay odds, I’d say this is probably the second-most-likely outcome, after the “everyone misses or holds his fire” scenario described earlier.

So that’s what my analytical self makes of this remarkable moment. All the while, my emotional self continues to marvel at the courage and tenacity of the many people who keep struggling to make the most of this historic opportunity to democratize Egypt, and to sympathize with the fatigue and frustration this seemingly endless transition and its accompanying economic woes must be producing. Honestly, I have no idea what that’s like, and it’s infinitely easier to comment from afar.

The State of Democracy in Turkey

Is Turkey still a democracy? Was it ever? How many jailed journalists and canisters of tear gas does it take to get to authoritarian rule?

The best statement I’ve seen so far on what Turkey’s ongoing crisis says about the state of its national political regime comes from Steven A. Cook and Michael Koplow. For Foreign Policy, they write:

Turkish politics is not necessarily more open than it was a decade ago, when the [ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP] was pursuing democratic reforms in order to meet the European Union’s requirements for membership negotiations. It is just closed in an entirely different way. Turkey has essentially become a one-party state… Successful democracies provide their citizens with ways in which to express their desires and frustrations beyond periodic elections, and Turkey has failed spectacularly in this regard.

Cook and Koplow’s piece is titled “How democratic is Turkey? Not as democratic as Washington thinks it is.” What that title and the essay that follows implicitly acknowledge is that the questions I posed at the start of this post are sometimes impossible to resolve with confidence.

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I know this challenge well because as part of my work for the Political Instability Task Force, I used to have to make binary calls like that every year for all countries of the world with populations larger than half a million. To make those calls, I would apply a checklist I had developed to an assemblage of newspaper articles and reports from election observers and human-right groups and decide whether or not a country deserved to be called a democracy. My checklist was based on standard procedural definitions of democracy, and countries that failed to satisfy any one of the conditions established therein was labeled an autocracy. Either you’re in the club or you’re out.

That process and the data it produced made sense for certain research tasks, but they also swept under the rug the ambiguity and uncertainty that makes cases like Turkey right now so important for our understanding of what democracy is, and how it really emerges and recedes. Many regimes are easy to tag as democracies or autocracies, but there’s a sizable bloc that defies this bifurcation, and this bloc has only gotten larger in the past 25 years. As more and more states that long eschewed democratic procedures have adopted them, they have often done so in bits and pieces. What one hand has given in formal rules, the other has often taken away with informal practices and outright subterfuge that are meant to preserve the power distribution “real” democracy would threaten to overturn.

To understand what’s happening in these situations, I think Charles Tilly’s process-oriented approach to democracy is more useful. As Tilly says on page 24 of—what else?—Democracy, “Democratization and de-democratization occur continuously, with no guarantee of an end point in either direction.” To structure our thinking about what those processes entail, he asserts that

A regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected and mutually binding consultation.

Elections are the most obvious form that consultation takes, but they aren’t the only form, and states can hold free elections while screwing up the protection and mutually binding parts.

So is Turkey a democracy? Who knows, but as Cook and Koplow argue, it’s almost certainly less democratic than it was a few years ago. As Erdogan and his supporters keep pointing out, Turkey under the AKP seems to be doing fine on the most obvious version of broad and equal consultation, namely, elections. Where it’s plainly slipped is on the “protected and mutually binding consultation” part. The disturbingly frequent arrests of journalists and alleged coup plotters, and now the state’s overreaction to nonviolent protests on matters of routine public policy, give the lie to the claim the Turkish state gives all citizens equal treatment and due process. Instead, we see a regime in which (paraphrasing Tilly) state agents increasingly use their power to punish their perceived enemies and reward their friends.

On this point, a couple of comments Prime Minister Erdogan made in a speech on Saturday speak volumes. Live-tweeting that speech, Turkish journalist Mahir Zeynalov spotlighted these choice remarks:

What those remarks reveal is a state that is happy to appeal to the citizens who reliably support it but closes off consultation with, and even bullies, the ones who don’t. The resulting regime may still be recognizable as a variation on the theme of democracy, but the discordant notes of authoritarianism are plainly audible and keep growing louder.

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