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.

A Mexican Standoff in Georgia

Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition has only held power for a few weeks since its surprise win in last month’s parliamentary elections, but some of its first steps already have me worried about the risk of a reversion to authoritarian rule there. A week ago, Georgian authorities brought criminal charges against Bacho Akhalaia, a former defense minister and close ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s, along with two sitting officials in the Defense Ministry. This week, we hear that authorities have arrested five senior officials in the Interior Ministry on charges linked to the October election.

I’m worried about these arrests because I’m watching them through the lens of a theory that sees strategic uncertainty as one the leading killers of new democracies. In my mental model, democracies can revert to authoritarian rule three ways: 1) an executive coup, whereby the ruling party quashes its rivals or otherwise rigs the political system in its own favor; 2) a military coup, whereby state security forces install themselves in government; or 3) a rebellion, whereby one or more opposition parties successfully seizes power by means other than a fair election. Rebellions occur rarely and almost never succeed, but executive and military coups are historically common, and most attempts at democracy worldwide have failed within a decade or two of their start by one or the other of these means (see here, here, and here for some previous posts on these broader points).

The spoils of state power often play a strong role in enticing incumbent officials and military officers to attempt coups, but they aren’t the only force at work. Political factions may also be lured into undemocratic behavior by uncertainty about their rivals’ intentions and fear of the steep costs of guessing wrong.

A game-theoretic model demonstrates this point in a formal way, but you can get the same idea by thinking about a Mexican standoff (and if you don’t know what that is, watch the embedded clip below from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for the classic cinematic example). In democracies, the three gunfighters are the ruling party, the opposition, and the military. In some cases, each of these factions may be itching to knock off its rivals as a way to win sole control of some treasure at hand. In other cases, though, some or all of the dueling pistoleros might genuinely prefer to cooperate with the others. Maybe there’s an even bigger treasure up the road that they can only capture if they work together, or maybe they’re just tired of shooting. Whatever the reason, the problem is that this desire for cooperation can’t always overcome the fundamental problem of mutual distrust. Because the stakes are so high, every little turn of the eyes or twitch of the finger is liable to get misinterpreted as a sign of bad intentions, and no one wants to be the sucker who waits a little too long to shoot in hopes that things will work out okay on their own.

Turning back to Tbilisi, the early arrests of Saakashvili loyalists in the state security apparatus are raising concerns that Georgian Dream means to punish its former overlords in ways that push the boundaries of democratic practice. An executive coup is the typical trajectory for new democracies in the post-Cold War period, especially in countries, like Georgia, where politics is sharply polarized. Even if they aren’t aware of those general facts, many observers seem quite sensitive to this risk. “The gloves are off in Tbilisi as the new ruling power takes aim at President Mikheil Saakashvili’s allies,” Molly Corso wrote of the arrests in Business News Europe. According to the New York Times, “some lawmakers feared [the arrests] presaged a wave of reprisals against members of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s defeated government.” And on today’s TBLPOD podcast from Tbilisi, Camrin Christensen noted that, “People here are now probably thinking, ‘Oh, no, am I also on this list?’ and thinking about taking family vacations.”

It’s not the handful of arrests themselves that are so worrisome, of course. It’s what they imply about Georgian Dream’s underlying intentions. In the Mexican standoff metaphor, these arrests are a menacing turn of the eyes and hips in the direction of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and its sympathizers in the police and defense establishment.

Maybe those fears are overblown. Maybe Georgian Dream is being straight with us when it says it’s just pursuing legitimate investigations into abuses of power during President Saakashvili’s tenure. Even if that’s the case, though, the resulting uncertainty about its true intentions and growing fear of a self-coup will increase the risk of a military coup or a rebellion by the UNM as these factions grow more concerned about their fading prospects under Georgian Dream. The stronger their belief that Ivanishvili has it in for them, the stronger their incentive to respond fast, before the bullets arrive and score some serious damage.

My judgment might be clouded my affection for the place—I was a Soviet area-studies major as an undergrad; one of my oldest and closest friends is an American expat now living in Tbilisi, and I loved what I saw when I traveled there for his wedding a few years ago—but I’m optimistic that this budding standoff will wind down without any grave injuries or fatal mistakes. Georgia’s rival factions might not like each other, but they hate and fear Russia even more. (The cartoon to the right sums up many Georgians’ views of their 2008 war pretty nicely.) Because of the omnipresent threat from its neighbor to the north, Georgia badly wants into Europe, and entry into NATO is seen as the first door through which it must pass. NATO has sound geostrategic reasons not to admit Georgia while the threat of renewed war with Russia lingers, but Saakashvili’s authoritarian tendencies didn’t help its case, either. The risk of further alienating Europe with a blatant demolition of democracy will probably be powerful deterrent to would-be rebels or coup plotters.

European officials are keenly aware of this desire and already making good use of their leverage. A few days after the former defense minister’s arrest, RFERL reported that NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was “extremely concerned” about Georgia’s post-election politics. “It’s for the legal system, the judicial system in Georgia, to sort out these cases,” he told a meeting of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly in Prague, “but of course it’s important that such trials are not undermined by political interference and we will of course follow that development very, very closely.” As will we.

How Makers of Foreign Policy Use Statistical Forecasts: They Don’t, Really

The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine includes a short piece I wrote on how statistical models can be useful for forecasting coups d’etat. With the March coup in Mali as a hook, the piece aims to show that number-crunching can sometimes do a good job assessing risks of rare events that might otherwise present themselves as strategic surprises.

In fact, statistical forecasting of international politics is a relatively young field, and decision-makers in government and the private sector have traditionally relied on subject-matter experts to prognosticate on events of interest. Unfortunately, expert judgment does not work nearly as well as a forecasting tool as we might hope or expect.

In a comprehensive study of expert political judgment, Philip Tetlock finds that forecasts made by human experts on a wide variety of political phenomena are barely better than random guesses, and they are routinely bested by statistical algorithms that simply extrapolate from recent trends. Some groups of experts perform better than others—the experts’ cognitive style is especially relevant, and feedback and knowledge of base rates can help, too—but even the best-performing sets of experts fail to match the accuracy of those simple statistical algorithms.

The finding that models outperform subjective judgments at forecasting has been confirmed repeatedly by other researchers, including one prominent 2004 study which showed that a simple statistical model could predict the outcomes of U.S. Supreme Court cases much more accurately than a large assemblage of legal experts.

Because statistical forecasts are potentially so useful, you would think that policy makers and the analysts who inform them would routinely use them. That, however, would be a bad bet. I spoke with several former U.S. policy and intelligence officials, and all of them agreed that policymakers make little use of these tools and the “watch lists” they are often used to produce. A few of those former officials noted some variation in the application of these techniques across segments of the government—military leaders seem to be more receptive to statistical forecasting than civilian ones—but, broadly speaking, sentiment runs strongly against applied modeling.

If the evidence in favor of statistical risk assessment is so strong, why is it such a tough sell?

Part of the answer surely lies in a general tendency humans have to discount or ignore evidence that doesn’t match our current beliefs. Psychologists call this tendency confirmation bias, and it affects how we respond when models produce forecasts that contradict our expectations about the future. In theory, this is when models are most useful; in practice, it may also be when they’re hardest to sell.

Jeremy Weinstein, a professor of political science at Stanford University, served as Director for Development and Democracy on the National Security Council staff at the White House from 2009 until 2011. When I asked him why statistical forecasts don’t get used more in foreign-policy decision-making, he replied, “I only recall seeing the use of quantitative assessments in one context. And in that case, I think they were accepted by folks because they generated predictions consistent with people’s priors. I’m skeptical that they would have been valued the same if they had generated surprising predictions. For example, if a quantitative model suggests instability in a country that no one is invested in following or one everyone believes is stable, I think the likely instinct of policymakers is to question the value of the model.”

The pattern of confirmation bias extends to the bigger picture on the relative efficacy of models and experts. When asked about why policymakers don’t pay more attention to quantitative risk assessments, Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of Policy Planning at State, responded: “You may believe that [statistical forecasts] have a better track record than expert judgment, but that is not a widely shared view. Changing minds has to come first, then changing resources.”

Where Weinstein and Slaughter note doubts about the value of the forecasts, others see deeper obstacles in the organizational culture of the intelligence community. Ken Knight, now Analytic Director at Centra Technology, spent the better part of a 30-year career in government working on risk assessment, including several years in the 2000s as National Intelligence Officer for Warning. According to Knight, “Part of it is the analytic community that I grew up in. There was very little in the way of quantitative analytic techniques that was taught to me as an analyst in the courses I took. There is this bias that says this stuff is too complex to model…People are just really skeptical that this is going to tell them something they don’t already know.”

This organizational bias may simply reflect some deep grooves in human cognition. Psychological research shows that our minds routinely ignore statistical facts about groups or populations while gobbling up or even cranking out causal stories that purport to explain those facts. These different responses appear to be built-in features of the automatic and unconscious thinking that dominates our cognition. Because of them, our minds “can deal with stories in which the elements are causally linked,” Daniel Kahneman writes, but they are “weak in statistical reasoning.”

Of course, cognitive bias and organizational culture aren’t the only reasons statistical risk assessments don’t always get traction in the intelligence-production process. Stephen Krasner, a predecessor of Slaughter’s as director of Policy Planning at State, noted in an email exchange that there’s often a mismatch between the things these models can warn about and the kinds of questions policymakers are often trying to answer. Krasner’s point was echoed in a recent column by CNAS senior fellow Andrew Exum, who notes that “intelligence organizations are normally asked to answer questions regarding both capability and intent.” To that very short list, I would add “probability,” but the important point here is that estimating the likelihood of events of concern is just one part of what these organizations are asked to do, and often not the most prominent one.

Clearly, there are a host of reasons why policy-makers might not see statistical forecasts as a valuable resource. Some are rooted in cognitive bias and organizational culture, while others are related to the nature of the problems they’re trying to solve.

That said, I suspect that modelers also share some of the blame for the chilly reception their forecasts receive. When modelers are building their forecasting tools, I suspect they often imagine their watch lists landing directly on the desks of policymakers with global concerns who are looking to take preventive action or to nudge along events they’d like to see happen. “Tell me the 10 countries where civil war is most likely,” we might imagine the president saying, “so I know where to send my diplomats and position my ships now.”

In reality, the policy process is much more reactive, and by the time something has landed on the desks of the most senior decision-makers, the opportunity for useful strategic warning is often gone. What’s more, in the rare instances where quantitative forecasts do land on policy-makers’ desks, analysts may not be thrilled to see those watch lists cutting to the front of the line and competing directly with them for the scarce attention of their “customers.”

In this environment, modelers could try to make their forecasts more valuable by designing them for, and targeting them at, people earlier in the analytical process—that is, lower in the bureaucracy. Quantitative risk assessments should be more useful to the analysts, desk officers, and deputies who may be able to raise warning flags earlier and who will be called upon when their country of interest pops into the news. Statistical forecasts of relevant events can shape those specialists’ thinking about what the major risks are in their areas of concern, hopefully spurring them to revisit their assumptions in cases where the forecast diverges significantly from their own expectations. Statistical forecasts can also give those specialists some indication on how various risks might increase or decrease as other conditions change. In this model, the point isn’t to replace or overrule the analyst’s judgment, but rather to shape and inform it.

Even without strategic redirection among modelers, though, it’s possible that broader cultural trends will at least erode resistance to statistical risk assessment among senior decision-makers and the analysts who support them. Advances in computing and communications technology are spurring the rise of Big Data and even talk of a new “age of the algorithm.” The discourse often gets a bit heady, but there’s no question that statistical thinking is making new inroads into many fields. In medicine, for example—another area where subjective judgment is prized and decisions can have life-or-death consequences—improvements in data and analysis are combining with easier access to the results to encourage practitioners to lean more heavily on statistical risk assessments in their decisions about diagnosis and treatment. If the hidebound world of medicine can find new value in statistical modeling, who knows, maybe foreign policy won’t be too far behind.

Will Democracy Survive in Europe? Part 2

In the first part of this two-part post, I stayed close to the statistical evidence from the past half-century to argue that, as dismal as the economic crisis may be, we should expect Europe’s older democracies to survive it. At the same time, I acknowledged that we can’t be sure of that outcome, because the international system that generated the data on which those statistics are based might be have changed.

In this second part, I’m going to venture into more speculative territory by applying my own toy model of democratic consolidation to Europe today. A thorough application of this model would require a lot more time and prose than I can devote to a blog post–this thing’s already going to be longer than my usual missive, and that’s after splitting it into two parts–so I’m going to aim instead for a cursory version that uses a few broad brush strokes in place of lots of case-specific detail. As I do so, I would invite anyone who knows these cases better than I to fill in or correct those details and to identify the alternative futures they might imply.

Much of the thinking in recent decades about how democracy arises and survives is rooted in structural theories of political development. By contrast, my model of democratic consolidation uses game theory to redirect our attention to the strategic concerns of three powerful political actors: ruling parties (the incumbent), their electoral rivals (the opposition), and the military. This redirection is useful because structural conditions don’t really cause change, at least not directly. For democracy to fail, one of these three organizations actually has to break it. Those actors’ motivation to do so is shaped by external conditions, as structural theories suggest, but it is also affected by internal features of their organizations and uncertainty about their rivals’ intentions and capabilities.

This uncertainty turns out to be particularly important. Because of it, democracy isn’t just vulnerable to the machinations of groups who stand to benefit directly from a return to authoritarian rule, as we generally (and correctly) assume. In this version of the world, democracy can also be undermined by the fears of groups who would prefer to see democracy survive but must worry that their rivals will steal it out from under them. Under these conditions, even committed democrats may decide to strike preemptively to avoid getting stuck with their least-preferred outcome, namely, a dictatorship led by one of their political rivals. As a result, the risk of democratic breakdown will often be greater than we realize when we concentrate on things like economic development or popular attitudes.

What does this model suggest about the survival of democracy in Europe now? Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have occurred when ruling parties have rigged the system to ensure that they remain in power, so we can start by considering the likelihood of this sort of self-coup.

Viewing the scene from high altitude, I’d say the risk of self-coups remains extremely low in contemporary Europe for reasons that Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast (NWW) enumerate in their excellent book, Violence and Social Orders. NWW locate the fulcrum of political and economic development in the (still-rare) transition from “natural states,” characterized by oligarchy and rent-seeking, to open access orders, characterized by competition and impersonal exchange. For thinking about the staying power of democracy in Europe, their crucial point is that, once established, open access orders are resilient because openness across the various parts of the system–political, economic, and social–is mutually reinforcing.

Open access orders exhibit a virtuous circle linking the control of violence and open access. The political system limits access to the means of violence; open economic and social access ensures that access to the political system is open; credible prohibitions on the use of violence to compete maintains open economic and social access; and political and judicial systems enforce prohibitions on the use of violence. Similarly, open access to organizations in all systems sustains competition in all systems. Competition in all systems, in turn, helps sustain open access.

Would-be autocrats have the most to gain by usurping power in situations where the state directly commands, or controls access to, lucrative economic assets–things like oil or mining contracts, large industrial enterprises, or valuable real-estate markets. Absent those ready sources of revenue, it’s hard to extract a profit from political power. In open access orders, those economic disincentives are reinforced in the political sphere by the presence of well-organized interest groups outside of ruling parties and dynamic competition within them. In the economic sphere, they are also reinforced by price mechanisms and international markets which quickly impose costs on sharp policy changes. In Europe today, the status quo may be quite painful, but the depth and breadth of openness and competition means there’s little profit to be won by grasping at oligarchy, and the direct and indirect costs of breaking democracy only make the expected payoff down that pathway look even worse.

Opposition parties confront all the same disincentives, only with several added degrees of difficulty. For an opposition party to usurp power, it has to organize and pull off a successful revolution, and it turns out that’s really, really hard to do. In the past half-century, there have only been a dozen or so democratic breakdowns by revolution, and most of those involved civil wars and state collapses in which the rebellious opposition never managed to gain control of central authority. These disincentives don’t mean we won’t hear calls for rebellion or see more social unrest and even terrorism. They just mean that those calls and acts will fail to snowball into well-organized political movements that realistically threaten to seize state power by non-democratic means.

Last but not least is the military, the chief agent of democratic breakdown during the Cold War. There are basically two situations in which military leaders are tempted to try a coup: either they covet power for themselves, or they want to prevent a rival from clinging or coming to power. The former fits many of the coups in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, while the latter applies to cases like the anti-Communist coup in Greece in 1967, the “coup by memorandum” in Turkey in 1971, and the Thai coup of 2006.

As far as I can tell, the militaries of contemporary Europe have little appetite for political power. Appeals to organizational culture sometimes feel like hand-waves to me, but in this case I think the concept is quite relevant. European and American armed forces routinely extol the importance of civilian control, and that norm is now deeply embedded in these organizations and the societies from which their members come. Tellingly, in November 2011, when Greece’s defense minister sacked his service chiefs, it was left to opposition parties to decry the move as a politicization of the military; as we would expect from professionalized services, nary a peep was heard from the officers themselves.

What seems more plausible are scenarios in which military leaders are tempted to inject themselves into politics by fears that parties they consider radical will win power, or that political paralysis will sow prolonged disorder. In Greece, for example, politically conservative military officers might see the growing electoral appeal of far-left parties as a profound threat and decide that they need to prevent those parties from forming a government. This is the problem of strategic uncertainty identified in my game-theoretic model, and it’s potentially significant at a time of radicalization and polarization.

Even here, though, the benefits of that preemptive strike would have to be weighed against the expected costs of governing and aggressively suppressing popular unrest. Financial markets often punish coups, and those officers will probably recognize that governing and policing will be hard and thankless work, especially in the depths of an economic crisis with no obvious exit path.

In short, I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll see any military coup attempts in Europe in the near future, even in the countries hit hardest by the Euro crisis. As bad as the status quo gets, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which direct military rule looks any better to the people who would actually have to pull it off than stumbling along the current track.

Considering all of this theory and evidence together, I expect that democracy will survive the current crisis in Europe, even if the politics sometimes takes ugly turns in response to the disruptions of a deep recession and the structural changes that will have to ensue. Consideration of the base rate for democratic breakdown among rich countries and my beliefs about the incentives facing European parties and militaries today leads me to guesstimate the odds of democratic breakdown in even the most troubled countries—Greece and Spain for now, but maybe Italy or Portugal soon, too—at less than 1:50 (and you can hold me to that if you like).

Why We Shouldn’t Be Quite So Surprised by the Coup in Mali

Soldiers toppled the government of Mali in a coup d’etat yesterday. As Stanford Ph.D. candidate Ken Opalo notes on his blog, this turn of events has caught many people by surprise, because Mali has long been regarded as a democratic standout in Africa.

Since (re)democratization in the early 1990s Mali has routinely been cited as a case of democratic consolidation despite seemingly insurmountable odds (poor HDI scores, etc.). The current developments, however, raise serious questions with regard to whether the Malian political and military elite have wholly bought into the idea of settling their battles for power and influence at the ballot.

As it happens, the risk of a coup attempt in Mali in 2012 was more apparent in a statistical forecasting exercise I did at the start of the year. According to that analysis, Mali was the 10th riskiest country in the world, ranking behind nine other African countries–most of which, unlike Mali, have suffered coup attempts in the past few years–and Bangladesh.

The statistical modeling isn’t as complicated as it sounds. That analysis pushed Mali toward the top of the list because Mali’s structural conditions in 2011 look a lot like conditions in other countries that have suffered coup attempts in recent decades.

I wonder, though, if a coup in Mali also seems surprising because we’ve been overstating how democratic that country really was. Since 1992, when Mali began holding competitive multiparty elections, many observers have called out Mali as an African success story, an inspiring example of how democratization can progress under challenging conditions.

That’s not what I saw, however, when I took an admittedly cursory look at politics in Mali several years ago, while making data for a research project on transitions to and from democracy. At the time, I saw legislative elections in early 1997 that had been plagued by serious flaws, and many of the accounts I read implicated members of the leading Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA) party in the discovered instances of electoral misconduct. Under an agreement between the incumbent president Alfred Konare and several opposition leaders, the Constitutional Court annulled the results later that month, but the court refused to reschedule the presidential contest, and Konare cruised to re-election with nearly 96 percent of the vote when the opposition boycotted. Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported that dozens of members and supporters of the opposition had been arrested ahead of the elections, and some were allegedly tortured. When legislative elections were re-run later in 1997, Konare’s allies won a large majority of seats, effectively consolidating the ruling party’s grip on power by questionable means.

When I mentioned my take on Malian democracy on Twitter this morning, I heard some affirmations, but I also got some pushback. Senam Beheton, for example, argued that, “Regardless of Western plaudits, Mali stood out because the process was driven by Malians based on Mali’s interests.”

I concede that Mali is an ambiguous case, whatever your precise definition of democracy. Still, the surprise many people are expressing about the coup makes me wonder about the consequences of our lowered expectations for democratization in poor countries, and perhaps for Africa in particular. For logistical reasons alone, it’s really hard to hold fair elections. And, as anyone who’s spent any time watching politics can tell you, the logistical challenges are only part of the problem; people everywhere will also do all sorts of things in search of an edge. When we see this stuff in rich countries, we call it a crime. When we see it in poor countries, though, we’re more likely to excuse it as growing pains or technical difficulties.

In school, we’d call that grading on a curve, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As I noted in a previous post, there’s often an instrumental quality to Western narratives about democratization in places like Mali. Looking for exemplars that might inspire other societies, we sometimes choose to ignore or downplay procedural flaws that would raise howls in other contexts. For purposes of democracy promotion, that might even be a sound idea.

Still, in the wake of Mali’s coup, I can’t help wondering if all that cheerleading isn’t part of why we’re so surprised and confused today. I see similar problems in our thinking about Senegal, another supposed exemplar of democracy in Africa where an elected president has tightened his grip on power. Ditto for Ukraine, which went from Orange Revolution darling to creeping authoritarianism in about the same amount of time it took Mali to make its slide in the 1990s. When we keep telling ourselves that things are going great, we often stop refreshing our view and miss the signs of decline and change. “Surely it can’t happen here” turns out to be a pretty dangerous idea.

How Risky and Costly Are Coups, Really?

Coups d’etat don’t happen as often as they used to, but they do still happen. In the past few year, coups have toppled leaders in Honduras, Niger, and arguably Egypt, while coup bids have fizzled in Guinea-Bissau (twice), Democratic Republic of CongoMadagascar, and, less than a year after the aforementioned success, Niger. Meanwhile, just this morning, we’re hearing fresh rumblings of a possible coup in Pakistan, which last saw the military openly seize power in 1999. (Whether it’s ever really taken its hands off the levers of power at any point in Pakistan’s history is another matter.)

The persistence of coups is a bit of a puzzle, because coup attempts are typically costly to their perpetrators in at least two ways.

1. Most coup attempts fail. From 1955 to 2008, half of all coup bids worldwide failed (158 of 316). As the chart below shows, the failure rate has been much higher in the past two decades than it was in earlier years. And these are just the coup bids that make it all the way to an overt attempt. If our tally also included all of the plots that were uncovered and foiled before they could be put in motion, the failure rate would be much higher. If coup attempts usually fail, and the punishment for a failed coup is often imprisonment or death, then coup bids would seem to be a pretty risky gamble for their plotters.

 2. Coups take a toll on the economy. The figure below plots the estimated impact of a successful coup on a country’s GDP growth rate over the several years following the coup event (data geeks: see the technical notes at the end of this post for details on the method used to derive these estimates). The impact is substantial: on average, a couple of percentage points knocked off the growth rate in the year of the coup and another point or so the following year. Expected growth rates resume a few years after the coup, and there even seems to be something of a rebound effect several years down the road, but three or four years is a long wait in political time. This knock on the GDP growth rate matters for coup plotters because if they succeed, they’re liable be blamed for the damage done (Pakistani generals, take note!).

In light of these facts, it’s hard to understand why coup plotters keep trying, even if they are trying less often. To attempt a coup, you’ve either got to be ignorant of these facts or to consider them irrelevant to your particular situation. You might consider them irrelevant because you’re exceedingly optimistic about your own coup’s chances for success, as behavioral psychology suggests many military and political leaders will be. Alternatively, you might expect your attempt to fail but still think it’s worth a try because you believe that success will produce large private benefits (like the opportunity to loot the state treasury) or non-economic public benefits that will reflect well on you and your co-conspirators (like liberation from an awful tyrant, or defense against public disorder).

My hunch is that all of these forces–ignorance, optimism, greed, and benevolence–factor into the decision-making behind many coup attempts. We’ll never really know for sure, because even first-hand accounts of plotters’ motivations are highly unreliable. What we can say with some confidence, I think, is that people are going to keep trying anyway.

Technical Notes

The figures and charts in this post are based on coup event data compiled by Monty Marshall at the Center for Systemic Peace. You can find them here, under the Polity IV heading.

To estimate the impact of successful coups on GDP growth, I first used “coarsened exact matching” to pre-process a time-series cross-sectional data set of all countries worldwide for the period 1955-2008. Country-years were matched on several risk factors for successful coups, including infant mortality rates, degree of democracy (Polity scores, quadratic), recent coup activity, and a marker for the post-Cold War period. After matching, I used Zelig to estimate the average “treatment effect” for successful coups. The values used in the plot above are the medians from six iterations of this drill, one for each year away from the coup event. The GDP growth data are from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators.

Democratic Consolidation, Meet Prospect Theory

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for some of the work he did with Amos Tversky over many years on the study of human decision-making. Dubbed prospect theory, the part of Kahneman and Tversky’s research that led to a Nobel Prize identifies certain cognitive biases that cause actual humans to deviate in their decision-making from the mathematical rationality of expected-utility theory. In his fantastic new book, Kahneman (p. 282) discusses the three “cognitive features” underpinning prospect theory.

  • We evaluate potential gains and losses in relation to a neutral reference point. Under expected-utility theory, $10 is always $10, and $20 is always twice as much as $10. It turns out that’s not really how we think about gains and losses. Prospect theory shows us that, to a real-live human decision-maker, the value of $10 and the magnitude of the difference between $10 and $20 depend on their relation to some prior reference point that shapes the decision-maker’s expectations. As Kahneman writes, “For financial outcomes, the usual reference point is the status quo, but it can also be the outcome you expect, or perhaps the outcome to which you feel entitled, for example, the raise or bonus your colleagues receive.”
  • Our sensitivity to changes in wealth diminishes as values increase. “Turning on a weak light has a large effect in a dark room. The same increment of light may be undetectable in a brightly illuminated room. Similarly, the subjective difference between $900 and $1,000 is much smaller than the difference between $100 and $200.”
  • We dislike losing more than we like winning. Psychologists call this principle loss aversion. As Kahneman reports, “When directly compared or weighted against each other, losses loom larger than gains. This asymmetry between the power of positive and negative expectations or experiences has an evolutionary history. Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce.”

I first encountered prospect theory in graduate school, when Kahneman and Tversky’s groundbreaking article in Econometrica (pdf) was one of many required readings in an excellent course on organization theory taught by Jonathan Bendor. Most of my work since then has involved statistical analysis of cross-national data, so I haven’t had much cause to think about how these cognitive biases shape political behavior.

A couple of year ago, though, I wrote a book on democratic consolidation that uses game theory to help understand when and why attempts at democratic government usually fail. The formal model at the heart of that book construes those failures as the result of choices made by political organizations–rival parties and the military–in the face of uncertainty about future gains and losses and the likely actions of their competitors. Re-reading the outlines of prospect theory now, I can see a couple of ways that the cognitive biases it identifies might help explain some of the empirical patterns I observed in failures of democracy.

First and most interesting to me, I can see how loss aversion would strengthen the temptation for incumbent office-holders to diminish civil liberties and manipulate elections in order to preserve their power. Prospect theory teaches us that fears of large losses drive people to do all kinds of things to protect themselves against those losses, even when the costs of that protection seem to outweigh the expected gains. One of the two ways democracies usually fail is by executive coup, where the party that won the last election fixes the game to ensure it doesn’t lose the next one. (The other, of course, is military coup.)

It’s not hard to imagine situations where the spoils of power would tempt incumbent officials to try to lock themselves into office, but it’s also not hard to think of significant risks and costs associated with those efforts, especially if they fail: never-ending payoffs to cronies, loss of property, prison time, and so on. Prospect theory helps me see how the experience of holding power might reset actors’ expectations and then lead them to weigh the expected costs of losing power more heavily than the actual costs of trying to sustain it. In the world described by prospect theory, the spoils of power wouldn’t have to be all that grand, and the threat of losing the next election or being ousted in a military coup or rebellion all that large, to tempt incumbents to try to lock their status down. As Kahneman writes (p. 316),

When you pay attention to a threat, you worry–and the decision weights reflect how much you worry…The worry is not proportional to the probability of the threat. Reducing or mitigating the risk is not adequate; to eliminate the worry the probability must be brought down to zero.

In the context of democratic government, bringing the probability of a loss of power down to zero means breaking the democracy.

Second, I can also see how what Kahneman and Tversky call the possibility effect might increase the temptation to attempt a military coup. Military coups fail much more often than they succeed, so the puzzle here is why officers keep trying in spite of the long odds. Apparently, loss aversion doesn’t mean that people never chase long shots. Instead, psychologists have found that people tend to prefer big payoffs with long odds over smaller payoffs with much better odds in paired choices when the outcomes of the safe play is framed as a loss.

This cognitive quirk leads us to make decisions that rational-agent theory says we shouldn’t make, like chasing unlikely profits from business ventures into which we’ve already sunk a lot of money. Military leaders facing slashed budgets or loss of status and prerogatives confront a similar choice: stomach the losses associated with continuation of the status quo, or gamble on a coup bid that probably won’t succeed but might stem those losses if it did. Through the lens of prospect theory, we can see more clearly why they might pick Door Number 2, even if the expected payoff from that pathway is worse.

The possibility effect is connected to a pervasive human bias toward optimism. As Kahneman puts it (p. 255), “Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be.” In addition to being overly optimistic about our own skills and prospects, we tend to reward other people who exude self-confidence, even when that confidence is unwarranted by past performance. As a result, “Optimistic individuals play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the political and military leaders–not average people.”

The reference to military leaders caught my eye when thinking about the risk of coups. Military leaders are not a representative slice of the general population. As Kahneman notes, they are more likely to be risk-seekers who overestimate their own skill and downplay the chances of failure. These traits probably serve them well in combat and make them appealing leaders, but they could also lower the cognitive barriers to making a grab for power in shaky democracies.

Those are two ways that prospect theory might deepen our understanding of the forces behind the two most common forms of democratic breakdown. Structural conditions might determine the size of the gains and losses political decision-makers can expect to realize under different future scenarios, but cognitive biases will affect how they weigh those gains and losses, and how they evaluate their chances of insuring against or capturing them. Prospect theory doesn’t “prove” anything about the causes of democratic breakdown any more than my own little model does, but it’s comforting to see that an informal application of the former to the latter seems to amplify rather than undercut the lessons we might draw about why democracy fails so often.

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