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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Why Democracies Fail…or How?

Over at the Center for Global Development‘s Views from the Center blog, visiting fellow Ethan Kapstein looks to the recent coups in Mali and the Maldives for lessons about why democracies fail. Drawing on his book with Nathan Converse, Kapstein starts by refuting a few widely-held notions about the causes of democratic breakdown:

Democracies do not fail for the reasons commonly supposed. They do not generally fail, for example, because of poor economic performance…Nor do democracies reverse while undergoing the process of economic reform…Finally, democracies are no more likely to be sustained by adopting parliamentary instead of presidential institutions.

So far, so good for me. Those claims generally align with findings from my statistical research (see here and here, for example), even though our studies used different data sets to measure democratic transitions and breakdown.

Where Kapstein slips, I think, is when he tries to offers a better explanation.

Why, then, do democracies fail? Our study identified several common factors. First, young democracies are often weakened by extreme levels of income inequality. Rising income inequality indicates a dysfunctional democratic state in which economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, rather than one in which economic opportunities are widely shared and diffused….Second, young democracies that are unable to constrain the executive branch of power—whether presidential or parliamentary—will find it difficult to sustain participatory forms of government. The usual red flags here are changes—or attempts to change—the constitution, particularly with respect to term limits and electoral cycles…Third, democratic states that are ethnically fragmented face severe challenges of institution building they may be unable to overcome…Fourth, newly democratic states that do not provide adequate supplies of “public goods” like health care and education are unlikely to succeed.

Three items on that list–income inequality, ethnic fragmentation, and inadequate supplies of public goods–apply to most poor countries of any political stripe, and some of them even apply to most rich democracies. Because they are so generic, they don’t really help us distinguish between the democracies that fail and the ones that survive. (I have another problem with claims about the effects of income inequality in poor countries, but I’ll set that aside for now.)

The other item on that list–failure to constrain executive power–describes the very outcome Kapstein is trying to explain. When chief executives rewrite electoral laws or constitutions to ensure that they stay in power, we are witnessing the course of democratic breakdown, not its cause.

I think we can see the causes of democratic breakdown more clearly by focusing not on structural conditions, but on strategic dilemmas. In a book I wrote on the subject, I used a game-theoretic model to explore how leading political parties and the military might be expected to react to the temptations and fears they face in the highly uncertain environment of newly democratic politics. Consistent with conventional wisdom, I found that the spoils of state power will often tempt those organizations to try to seize or cement control of government in undemocratic ways.

More novel, I also found that groups will sometimes try to seize power as a defensive act, a preemptive strike against rivals whom they fear are plotting to do the same. We see this dynamic at work in Thailand in 2006 and Bangladesh in 2007, where military leaders seized power in coups when they feared that incumbent governments were institutionalizing their partisan advantage. We see it in Turkey today, where the ruling Justice and Development Party is arresting journalists and military officers in an overzealous effort to preempt an unlikely coup plot by its ardently secularist rivals.

These defensive pressures appear to have played a role in the recent coups in Mali and the Maldives as well. In Mali, mid-ranking officers seized power just one month before the next presidential election was scheduled to happen, and doubts about the fairness of that impending contest seem to have contributed to the officers’ decision, and to how the public has received it. Referring to the ousted president by his initials, one merchant told the New York Times, “A.T.T. can go to hell! He’s lied too much. Anyway, was he really going to organize elections?” In the Maldives, President Mohammed Hasheed was toppled after he tried to force a prominent judge from the bench, a move his rivals saw as a part of an unconstitutional expansion of his authority.

Combine these fears with the usual temptations of political power, and it’s easy to see why democratic consolidation is so hard. Structural conditions certainly shape the expected payoffs from different courses of action, but strategic uncertainty is the real engine of democratic breakdown.

This distinction matters for our thinking about how to respond to the problem and try to promote the survival of democratic regimes. In his blog post, Kapstein enumerates a few ideas:

What can the international community do to support newly elected regimes? A number of policies should be advanced, but all must have a common purpose: to dilute the existing concentrations of power. This means that foreign assistance should support the development of robust political parties; of inclusive systems of health care and education; and of a vibrant private sector.  Free trade agreements should be extended to new democracies, as well as schemes to promote international collaborative research and cultural engagement.

It’s hard to argue with efforts to expand health care, education, collaborative research, and cultural engagement. What I don’t like on this list is the proposal to “support the development of robust political parties” as a means to “dilute existing concentrations of power.” In practice, this usually means funding opposition parties.

The idea of constraining the government may be normatively appealing, but it’s strategically myopic. In effect, it privileges the opposition’s view. If we try to put ourselves in the shoes of incumbent officials–and, in some situations, military officers–we can see how foreign efforts to boost the strength of a political rival might appear menacing, and how that sense of menace could prompt those officials and officers to take countermeasures that directly erode or demolish democratic procedures. There may be some situations where this kind of assistance is warranted, but foreign governments and aid groups should meddle with caution in political rivalries on which the fate of other democracies may depend.

Why Egyptians Should Care about the Maldives Coup

I knew nothing about the Maldives until it popped into the news this week, but what I’m seeing there now looks very familiar, as it should to anyone who studies how new democratic regimes so often sputter and fail.

The Republic of Maldives is a tiny archipelago state off the southern tip of India with a population of only about 314,000. Fish are its leading export, but its economy depends most heavily on beach tourism. The Maldives gained independence from the British in 1965 and was ruled for most of the ensuing 45 years by one man, Mamoun Abdul Gayoom. Years of pro-democracy activism finally spurred the government to open the door to multiparty politics in 2003, and the state became a democracy in 2008 when its first free and fair elections delivered the presidency to longtime activist leader Mohamed Nasheed.

The 2008 elections terminated a long period of authoritarian rule, but they did not instantly transform the fundamentals of the political economy that developed under al-Gayoom’s government. That transformation would require deeper change, and President Nasheed’s efforts to bring about those reforms seem to be what recently got him into trouble. In 2010, the New York Times reported:

The government of the Maldives wants its money back — $400 million to be precise. That is the amount that it estimates was looted by its former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and his associates. Mr. Gayoom dominated politics in the Maldives, a tiny Indian Ocean nation, for 30 years. After winning six successive single-party elections, he finally bowed to popular pressure and allowed open elections in 2008. He lost. He is one of a number of politically connected figures — some alive, others dead — who are the targets of increasingly coordinated efforts to repatriate misappropriated funds. Results to date have been encouraging, but much more can be done, officials and development experts say. A report from the Maldives’ national auditor released in 2009 reads like a guidebook on self-enrichment. The president’s spending was “out of control,” it said, as Mr. Gayoom used his power to live a lavish lifestyle and extend largesse to those around him.

As President Nasheed’s administration struggled “to get its money back,” it found its efforts impeded. When the president tried to overcome one small piece of that resistance by ordering the arrest of an uncooperative criminal court judge, the judge refused to go, and the president’s opponents took to the streets to protest. The Times described the final spiral this way:

Recently, Mr. Nasheed’s popularity has suffered as the economy of the Maldives has struggled. Then, last month, Mr. Nasheed ordered the military to arrest the criminal court judge, Abdulla Mohamed, accusing the judge of acting on behalf of Mr. Gayoom and compromising the fairness of the country’s courts. The arrest, which was widely condemned, prompted the nightly protests in Male that peaked on Monday. “The real catalyst, last night, was that the police decided that they wouldn’t disperse the protesters,” said Mohamed Hussain Shareef, the spokesman for Mr. Gayoom’s party, the Progressive Party of Maldives. Mr. Shareef contended that soldiers had balked as well as the police. “We were told that the army was also asked to disperse the protesters using live rounds,” he said. The Associated Press reported that troops had initially fired rubber bullets. S. Ahmed Shiyam, a police subinspector in Male, said there were clashes between police officers and soldiers on Monday evening and early Tuesday morning, with some of the protesters joining on the police side. Then some soldiers switched sides as well, he said. An official close to Mr. Nasheed denied that the president had ordered soldiers to fire on the protesters. Rather, he said, the president chose to resign specifically to avoid such violence. “He faced the choice of seeing a lot of blood by asking the military to crack down,” said the official, who asked not to be identified, given the political volatility of the moment. “But he wasn’t prepared to do that.”

What seems apparent from the bits of information I’ve been able to find is that political polarization had amped up long before the recent showdown over judge Mohamed. Some of that polarization seems to have resulted from an economic slowdown that hit the Maldives in 2011, some from a disagreement over the proper role of Islam in politics, but surely some also resulted from the new government’s attempts to discover and dismantle the networks of patronage and corruption left over from the ancien regime. Presidential elections were due in 2012, and President Nasheed’s move against judge Mohamed apparently strengthened their belief that he was willing to do whatever it would take to cement his continuation in office and continue his fight against their interests.

These are the familiar and formidable challenges of democratic consolidation. New democracies are not drawn on blank slates. The development of democratic institutions that persist usually requires a transformation of deeper arrangements in which powerful groups are heavily invested. Wealthy individuals and powerful bureaucrats must be convinced to subject their sinecures to the rule of laws adopted by representatives they do not choose. Men with guns must be convinced that they will be better off refraining from picking sides in partisan fights or seizing direct control of government when they don’t like how much money it spends on them or what it tells them to do.

For democracy to survive under these conditions, political and military leaders have to gain confidence that every political confrontation is not a gladiatorial death match, and that their rivals can’t or won’t try to win those confrontations by simply usurping power and demolishing the arena. This trust is impossible to manufacture. It seems instead to rise and decline fitfully, and the confrontations whose successful resolution might deepen that trust more often lead instead to resumptions of authoritarian rule. We can recognize and even vaguely understand all of this and still not know how to make it happen differently.

So what usually happens instead is what happened this week in the Maldives. Motivated by mixtures of ambition and fear, partisan rivals get stuck in a downward spiral of distrust that leads eventually to an undemocratic resolution. These resolutions often take the form of a military coup, where the guys with guns decide to take matters into their own hands or, as in the Maldives, side with the rebellious opposition. In many other cases, the confrontation is resolved by executive coup, where incumbent officials ensure their continuation in power by tightening the screws on their political rivals or just rigging or scrapping elections. Opposition parties sometimes rebel, but those rebellions very rarely succeed; instead, they are usually either quashed or hijacked by a collaboration of opportunistic political insiders and state security forces.

Anyone who cares about the fate of new democracies in Egypt, Tunisia, or really anywhere should care about this pattern, because it foretells the likely futures of those regimes. I don’t mean this to be a declaration of helplessness in the face of these patterns as much as a frank assessment of the depth of the challenges involved. As I’ve said before, I’m a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. In their brilliant overview of political development throughout recorded history, Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast drly note (p. 27) that “historic transitions [of the sort described here] occurred within relatively brief periods, typically about fifty years.” Replace that last comma with a pause for comic timing, and you get a better sense of what I have in mind.

PS. For detailed reporting on the coup and the spiral of events leading to it, see this story by Bryson Hull for Reuters.

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