Thailand's coup culture

opinion May 24, 2014 00:00

By Joshua Keating

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Coups always seem to come in clusters. And this week, we seem to be having a flurry of coup-related news from around the world. The ongoing chaos in Libya is starting to look more like a slow-motion coup, with the country's interior ministry announcing to

In Egypt this weekend, voters will head to the polls for an election whose result is a foregone conclusion. Barring a shocking surprise, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be elected president, fully cementing the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi last summer – an event that was described internationally as a coup, though many Egyptians object to the term. A poll this week found that a small majority of Egyptians say Morsi’s ouster was justified.  
Then there’s the continuing crisis in Ukraine, which began with the overthrow of president Viktor Yanukovych – an event the Russian government and media invariably describe as a Western-backed extremist coup, though it’s viewed by most people who don’t get their news from RT as a popular uprising against an increasingly autocratic ruler.  
Then, of course, there’s the most blatant case: Thailand. Earlier this week, a week after prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was dismissed from office by a court ruling, the military declared martial law earlier, denying that a coup was taking place. But on Thursday they made it official: 
The military invited political leaders for a second day of talks on how to resolve the country’s political deadlock, then detained the meeting participants when no progress was made. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said the coup was launched “in order to bring the situation back to normal quickly” and to “reform the political structure, the economy and the society”.
Is the coup d’etat making a comeback in international politics? In short, no.
If military coups feel like a throwback to the Cold War, it’s because to a large extent they are. Research by political scientists Hein Goemans and Nikolay Marinov (see chart) has demonstrated, the number of coups that happen around the world each year have fallen dramatically since the end of the Cold War.
Depending on the outcome in Libya, Thailand is the only coup that’s happened this year. Compare that with 1964, at the height of the Cold War, when there were 12.
Coups today are also far more likely to be followed by elections rather than a long period of military rule.
Goemans and Marinov chalk up these trends in large part to the disappearance of Cold War superpower competition. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union frequently covertly or overtly supported the overthrow of left-wing or right-wing governments in the developing world and tended not to be all that concerned with the democratic credentials of the government that took its place. Today, countries that receive Western aid in particular are more likely to succumb to international pressure to resume elections. (As we’re seeing in Egypt, the resumption of elections and a true transition to democracy are very different things, but that’s a topic for another post.)
Despite the overall decline in coups as a method of political transition, a few countries do remain stubbornly coup-prone. One example is Guinea, which has faced almost annual military coup attempts in recent years. Another is Thailand, which has experienced more than a dozen successful coups over the past century.  
Political forecaster Jay Ulfelder, dubbed the “Nate Silver of coups”, produces an annual list of the countries most likely to have a coup. Guinea came in at No 1, Thailand at No 10. At the top of the list are places like Mali, South Sudan, and Afghanistan – countries that in addition to coup-risk face ongoing civil conflicts and chronic poverty.