On October 13th, 2023, the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE) and the Forum for Research on Media and Democracy in Eastern Europe (FROMDEE) hosted an academic conference on “Democratic Backsliding and Electoral Autocracies”. This brief provides a short summary of the keynote lecture and research presentations featured at the conference.
The most recent report by the V-Dem Institute concludes that “72 percent of the world’s population […] live in autocracies by 2022” and “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 is down to 1986 levels” (V-Dem Institute, 2023). In Europe, these declines have manifested in the previous Polish government undermining judicial independence, in tightened political repression in Belarus, and most prominently in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But the rise of electoral autocracies and democratic backsliding are not confined to Europe – their strategies of propaganda, corruption, electoral manipulation, as well as attacks on judicial and media independence are a global phenomenon. The October 13th FROMDEE Conference gathered researchers from economics, law and political science to bring insight into why and where reversals are taking place, and what measures are needed to reverse the negative trend. This policy brief provides an overview of the research shared at the conference.
Populism and Autocracy – the Case of Russia
In the keynote lecture, Arturas Rozenas (New York University) focused on the roots of populism, challenging the common view of illiberal democracies as a mix between democracies and dictatorships. Rather, dictatorships evolve into populist dictatorships that then take one of two paths: either the path to democracy, or the path towards electoral autocracy, illiberal democracy, or totalitarianism. In this framework, populist dictatorships have historically made use of populist elements we recognize from modern times, i.e., democratic-seeming institutions misused for the ruler’s purposes.
In a populist dictatorship, Rozenas continued, there is a monopoly of power. Institutions such as elections and parliamentary representation, serve not to allocate power but to legitimise it. The transition from passive to active dictatorships coincided with a move away from the common notion of a king or similar leader deriving rightful power from God to rule the masses, to a reality built on the idea that the ruler’s legitimacy stems from the masses. This historic transformation should however not be interpreted as a transition to democracy. In fact, Rozenas showed that for most of recent history, the majority of elections and expansions of suffrage took place in dictatorships rather than in democracies. These seemingly populist institutions serve not only to legitimise governments, but also to coopt the population in a public display of the ruler’s strength. Rozenas argued, that in an active populist dictatorship, the ruler creates a setting which suppresses dissent and expectations of dissent, through institutionalised expressions of support (in the form of political participation, elections, large rallies etc.).
Turning to the Russian setting, the first thing to notice is the deep tradition of autocracy – from tsarism to Stalinism. In Russia, the words “society” and “the people” briefly blossomed during past revolutions or uprisings but have largely been absent in the Russian language and are once again on the decline under the rule of Putin. Further, the Russian population has time and again been exploited by its rulers during succession crises for displays of power and dominance. Examples of this are the mandatory elections held under Stalin two weeks after the invasion of the Baltic States in 1939 and more recently under Putin in the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine in 2021. Such populist autocratic strategies are nothing new in Russia, concluded Rozenas – rather they derive from the internal logic of dictatorship that has played out throughout Russian history.
Continuing the notion of the “absent” Russian society, Olha Zadorozhna (Kozminski University) began her presentation by explaining that protests are infrequent in Russia and have surprisingly few attendees given the country’s large population. While there were mass protests in the run-up to the collapse of communism in the 1980’s and protests took place against corruption in 2017-2018, and in relation to the arrest of Alexey Navalny in 2021, protests in Russia are typically not motivated by an overarching ideology or broader political questions. Rallies in favor of authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism are a more common occurrence. Moreover, there are few indications that the invasion of Ukraine, sanctions and subsequent economic downturn have negatively affected the Russian population’s support for the regime. Still, literature has shown that war-related deaths can mobilize opposition against war participation (e.g., the U.S. participation in the Vietnam War). Considering this, Zadorozhna evaluates whether the deaths of Russian soldiers provoke a reaction among the Russian population. By combining social media data on fallen soldiers with protest activity for the first four months of the Russian invasion in 2022, the study find that casualties lead to an increase in protest activity, indicating that deaths can in fact mobilize public opposition in Russia.
Other populist strategies to ensure support for Putin in Russia relate to political participation and the judiciary. Nicholas James (University of Oxford) analysed electoral rule changes in the Russian Duma – from mixed member majoritarianism to proportional representation (PR) – by measuring their effect on floor participation. Applying a difference-in-differences framework, James found that deputies experiencing a change from PR included less words in their speeches following the switch (about 15-20 percent of an average speech). This effect should be understood in the political context of the ruling party’s (United Russia) increased influence during this time period (2010s). In fact, James concluded, the results point in the direction of the regime tampering with the Duma in an impromptu and reactionary manner with the overall goal of obtaining closer control and the appearance of support for the regime.
Yulia Khalikova’s (University of Hamburg) presentation gave further insight into how ostensibly democratic institutions can be exploited to make an authoritarian regime appear legitimate. In her work, Khalikova considers judicial references to international law that may be employed strategically, without necessarily adhering to the spirit or content of the law. Looking specifically at international law citations in 601 judgements made in the Russian Constitutional Court (RCC) between 2000 and 2021, Khalikova find evidence that the RCC has increasingly cited international courts when making judgements on topics related to politics and physical rights, indicating that state policy influences citation patterns. The change in citation patterns also points to the RCC currently using international law to support the regime and uphold its legitimacy, meaning that international law – adopted with the ambition of enhancing democratic values and ensuring human rights – is misused for undemocratic and repressive purposes.
Censorship and Propaganda
Information control is an important feature of autocratic regimes. Philine Widmer (ETH Zurich) considers the Chinese setting – where the regime controls the amount of foreign information available on the internet via a countrywide firewall. Research has shown that autocracies make use of censorship strategies to control their citizens, but these are associated with high reputational costs and can be overcome by tech-savvy citizens. Using a machine learning algorithm, Widmer first predicts a newspaper article’s alignment with the Chinese regime before comparing the placement of more/less aligned articles on news websites. Her results show that front-page news stories in Chinese newspapers are more aligned with the regime’s stance than other content. Front-page placement in turn matters for information uptake. Widmer ended the presentation by comparing the additional cost of finding less aligned articles to the technological costs required to access outside media (e.g. VPNs). For an autocracy to achieve its information control objectives, independent news may just need to be relatively harder to access. It does not need to make it impossible to access for all citizens.
Censorship is typically accompanied by, and complementary with, propaganda. Restricting other narratives allows autocratic regimes to spread their own. While propaganda is a common feature within autocracies, Jaakko Meriläinen’s (Stockholm School of Economics) presentation evaluated the effect of autocratic propaganda in a democratic setting.
Meriläinen’s study focuses on a rogue experiment in which some Finnish children in the 1970’s were taught history and social sciences using material from the Soviet Union – material which was in essence Soviet propaganda. By exploiting geographical and cohort variation, Meriläinen use a difference-in-differences approach to compare the 213 exposed children to children taught the regular Finnish curriculum. The long-term outcomes show that exposed children had lower incomes in adulthood, worked fewer months per year and were engaged in more left-leaning and publicly beneficial occupations (such as, nurses and firefighters).
Information and Accountability
The use of technological innovations to access otherwise restricted information was central to Arieda Muço’s (Central European University) presentation. She studies the spread of the Xerox photocopying machine in communist Hungary in the 1980’s – a setting characterised by limited freedom of speech and restrictions on the media. She reported that areas with early placement of Xerox machines are found to exhibit higher shares of pro-democratic voting. Muço ascribes these outcomes to the fact that the machines allowed for the spread of information and eased coordination of the opposition, suggesting that new technologies and information can act as key facilitators in the fall of autocratic regimes.
Providing citizens with information was also a key feature in Enrique Seira Bejarano’s (Michigan State University) presentation. He began by discussing two potentially related trends: in Latin America recent years have seen (i) increased levels of corruption and (ii) increased dissatisfaction with democracy among citizens. The number of corruption-related news articles have increased threefold in Spanish and doubled in English and the share of people perceiving corruption to be the greatest challenge to their country has doubled in the last decade. The study uses two empirical strategies to identify the effect of corruption on democratic values. Firstly, Seira Bejarano described an observational study, in which data on major corruption scandals were combined with Latinobarometer data on support for democracy. The authors find that corruption scandals increase corruption perceptions while decreasing stated support for democracy. Secondly, Seira Bejarano reported the results of a randomized controlled trial in which some respondents were shown videos of a politician accepting bribes. This had a negative effect on preferences for democracy and on trust more broadly. Both studies show that revelations of corruptions decrease the support for democracy, suggesting a potential tradeoff between the public’s belief in democratic institutions and increased transparency which is important for accountability but can also expose corruption.
Yet another threat to democracy is the rise of right-wing populism – currently a reality in many well-established democracies across Europe. In Germany, the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) enjoys around 21 percent of voters’ support according to recent polls. To understand their rise in popularity, Navid Sabet (Goethe University Frankfurt) builds on previous literature on cultural conflict as a driver for right-wing party support. The paper he presented examines the role of violent conflict in the form of terrorist acts. It evaluates whether acts of terror can alter the political landscape and shift support to the far-right. To avoid selection problems, the authors compare successful terror attacks to attacks that failed. Sabet reported that successful small-scale attacks (predominantly targeting migrants) increase AfD’s vote share by about 6 percentage points in state elections (in the time period 2013-2021). The acts of terror were found to increase voter turnout, by mobilizing otherwise idle voters, but also by gaining votes at the cost of other parties. Exploring the mechanisms behind these results, the authors study the language used by political parties and the way successful attacks were covered in the media. Relative to coverage of unsuccessful attacks, media coverage used a more negative tone, more words related to Islam and terror and fewer words related to right-wing populism. This suggests that media plays an important role in shaping the public’s response to acts of terror and that far right parties are able to exploit this dynamic.
The 2023 FROMDEE Conference brought together academics from different fields to shed light on some of the main challenges to democracy today. In part, the research presented supported the prevailing narrative that democracies are backsliding in many parts of the world. However, by analysing how autocracies and populist leaders operate, the presenters also highlighted the vulnerability of dictatorships.
Arturas Rozenas cited the example of a rally in Bucharest in 1989, which was organised to display support for Ceauşescu’s regime and descended into an anti-government protest. Dictatorships can benefit by coopting the populist elements of democracy but, in doing so, they risk creating a vehicle for genuine democratic expression.
The audience learned about autocracies’ efforts to control the flow of information but also about citizens’ ability to circumvent restrictions whether in 1980s Hungary or present-day China. Several presentations focused on the extent of autocratic control in Russia but even in this setting, the death of soldiers in Ukraine motivates citizens to participate in protests.
Recent trends suggest that democratic institutions should not be taken for granted in any country. Societies can become more resilient to the threat of democratic backsliding, in part by better understanding how both democracies and autocracies operate and what makes them vulnerable. Researchers around the world are using innovative methods to expand our knowledge in this area, as reflected in the presentations at the 2023 FROMDEE Conference.
- V-Dem Institute. (2023). Defiance in the Face of Autocratization. Democracy Report 2023. University of Gothenburg. Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem Institute). https://www.v-dem.net/publications/democracy-reports/
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
The 2023 FREE Network Retreat, an annual face-to-face event for members of the FREE Network, gathered its representatives to share and exchange research ideas and to discuss its institutes’ respective work and joint efforts within the Network. An academic session highlighted multiple overarching areas of interest and opportunities for research collaboration and included a plenary session on topics ranging from theoretical underpinning of Vladimir Putin’s regime to climate change beliefs and to consumer behaviour in credit markets. A session addressing the respective institute’s work during the last year also demonstrated the importance and relevance of the FREE Network’s joint initiatives on gender, democracy and media, and climate change and environment: FROGEE, FROMDEE and FREECE. This brief gives a short outline of the plenary session and an overview of some further topics covered during the conference.
The Academic Day
The Academic Day consisted partly of a plenary session and partly of an academic session. The academic session was outlined to demonstrate the wide spectrum of research interests within the network and to promote and highlight the opportunities for research collaboration. Designed as a series of poster sessions, each organized around a common research theme, it allowed for an exchange of ideas between presenting researchers and the audience while displaying the overlap of the various research interests across the institutes. At the same time, the poster session combined the broad range of topics within 10 overarching subjects (trade, gender, migration and education, public economics, energy, labor, political economy and development, macro, conflict, and theory and auctions).
The plenary session further illustrated the wide variety of topics the FREE Network researchers’ work on. During the plenary session, three distinguished presentations were held, summarized in what follows.
“Why Did Putin Invade Ukraine? – A Theory of Degenerate Autocracy”
Firstly, Konstantin Sonin, Professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, gave a presentation of his working paper (with Georgy Egorov, Northwestern University) in which the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine is explained through a theoretical framework on dictators’ decision-making in degenerate autocracies.
Sonin outlined how the beliefs about Ukraine in Kremlin, prior to the invasion, were factually wrong. For example, Kremlin believed that Ukraine, despite plenty of facts pointing in the opposite direction, lacked a stable government and had an incapable army. Further, it was believed that the US and Europe wouldn’t care about Ukraine and that Russian troops would be welcomed as liberators – the latter exemplified by the fact that Russia sent police and not the army during the first phase of the invasion. He also stressed that the decision to invade Ukraine is likely to have disastrous consequences for Vladimir Putin, his regime, and for Russia as a whole. This is, however, not the first example of a disastrous decision made by a leader of an autocratic regime, leading up to the question: What explains such choices that should not rationally have been made? And how can leaders make them in highly institutionalized environments where they are surrounded by councils and advisors who are supposed to possess the best expertise?
The model presented by Sonin assumes a leader in such highly institutionalized environment that wishes to stay in power and whose decisions are based on input from subordinates. The subordinates differ in level of their expertise and the leader thus chooses the quality of advice that he receives through his choice of subordinates. In turn, while giving advice to the leader, the subordinate considers two factors: the vulnerability of the leader and their own prospects should the leader fall. In equilibrium there is a tradeoff as competent subordinates are also less loyal (since a more competent person might know when to switch alliances and have better prospects if the regime changes).
The leader also has access to repression as an instrument. Repression decreases his changes to be overthrown but raises the stakes for a potential future power struggle, as a leader with a history of repression is more likely to be repressed by his successor.
This interaction creates a feedback loop. If a dictator chooses repression, he feels more endangered, and he then chooses a more loyal subordinate who is less likely to deceive him for personal gain under a potential new regime. However, this leads to the appointment of less competent subordinates whereafter the information that flows to the leader becomes less and less reliable – as illustrated by Kremlin’s beliefs about Ukraine prior to the war.
There are three types of paths in equilibrium, Sonin explained; 1. “stable autocracy”, with leaders altering in power and choosing peaceful paths without repressions 2. “degenerate autocracy” – where the incumbent and opponent first replace each other peacefully and then slide into the repression-based change of power (until one of them dies and the story repeats), and 3. “consecutive degenerate autocracy” – where each power struggle is followed by repression.
Concluding his presentation, Sonin highlighted that in a degenerate autocracy such as Russia, individual decisions by the leader are rarely crucial due to the high level of institutionalization. However, as shown by the model, the leader is inevitably faced with a situation where he is surrounded by incompetent loyalists feeding him bad intel and setting him up to make disastrous decisions – most recently displayed in Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
“Facing the Hard Truth: Evidence from Climate Change Ignorance”
Pamela Campa, Associate Professor at Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics, gave the conference’s second presentation, which detailed her work (with Ferenc Szucz, Stockholm University) on climate change skepticism.
Campa opened her talk with the current paradox regarding climate change, where, in the scientific community there is a strong consensus about the existence of climate change, but in society at large, skepticism is largely prevalent. This can be exemplified by one quarter of the US population not believing in global warming in 2023, and Europeans not believing in the fact that humans are the main driver of climate change.
According to Campa, the key question to answer is therefore “Why does ignorance about climate change persist among the public – in spite of the overwhelming evidence?”. One possible explanation may be a deficit in comprehension; people simply don’t understand the complexity of climate change and thus follow biased media and/ or politicians more or less sponsored by lobbyists. However, research have shown scientifical literacy to be quite uncorrelated with climate change denial, contradicting the above explanation. The second hypothesis, and of focus in the study, instead revolve around the concept of information avoidance. To test the hypothesis that people actively avoid climate change information, the authors key in on coal mining communities in the US having been exposed to negative shocks in the form of layoffs. These communities are of interest given their strong sense of identity and the fact that they are directly affected by the green transition. Arguably, a layoff shock would negatively affect not only their economy, but also pose a threat to their perceived identity. Given the context, it can thus be assumed that these communities to a larger extent would avoid information on climate change and information post-shock to restore the threatened identity.
The authors consider US counties experiencing mass layoff (more than 30 percent of mining jobs lost between 2014 and 2017) as treated counties, finding that in these counties, learning about climate change is 30 to 40 percent lower than in counties having experienced no mass layoffs. To account for the fact that the layoff itself may cause changes in learning, the authors also consider an instrument variable analysis in which gas prices are exploited as instrument for the layoffs – once again displaying the fact that people in affected communities believe climate change to be caused by humans to a lesser extent, when compared to counties in which no mass layoffs had occurred.
Interestingly, when controlling with other industries with somewhat similar characteristics (such as metal mining), the drop in climate change learning disappears, feeding in the notion of “identity-based information avoidance”.
The lack of support for and consensus among the public of the ongoing climate change and its drivers might pose a threat for the green transition as well as reduce personal effort to reduce the carbon footprint, Campa concluded.
“Consumer Credit with Over-Optimistic Borrowers”
In the plenary session’s last presentation, Igor Livshits, Economic Advisor and Economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, presented his working paper (with Florian Exler, University of Vienna, James MacGee, Bank of Canada and Michèle Tertilt, Mannheimer University) on consumer credit and borrower’s behaviour.
There has been much debate on whether and how to regulate consumer credit products to limit misuse of credit. In 2009/2010 several initiatives and regulations (such as the 2009 Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act) were introduced with the aim of protecting consumers and borrowers from arguments that sellers of credit products exploit lack of information and cognitive capacity of borrowers. There is however a lack of evaluation of such arguments and subsequent regulations, which Livshits explained to be the motivation behind the paper.
The paper differentiates between over-optimistic borrowers (behaviour borrowers) and rational borrowers (rationalists). While both types face the same risks, behaviour borrowers are more prone to shocks and are at the same time unaware of these worse risks (i.e., they believe they are rationalists). Focusing on these types of borrowers, the paper introduces a model in which the lenders endogenously price credit based on beliefs about the borrower type. Households decide whether to spend or save and if to file for bankruptcy in an environment in which they are faced with earning shocks and expense shocks.
In this structural model of unsecured lending and default, Livshits finds that behavioral borrowers’ “risky” behaviour negatively affects rationalists since both types are pooled together and, thus rationalists are overpaying to cover for the behaviour borrowers. A calibration of the model also suggests that behavioral borrowers borrow too much and file for bankruptcy too little and too late.
Livshits argued that the model does not provide evidence of the notion that borrowers need protection from lenders, but rather that borrowers need to be protected from themselves. In fact, had behaviour borrowers been made aware of the fact that they are overly optimistic about the actual state of their future incomes, they would borrow 15 percent less.
To address the increased risks behaviour borrowers take at the cost of rationalists, policies such as default made easier, taxation on borrowing, financial literacy efforts and score-dependent borrowing limits could all be considered. Such policies may lower debt and reduce bankruptcy filings but as they may also reduce welfare and exhibit scaling difficulties.
Updates from the Institutes
During the Retreat, the respective institutes shared the previous year’s work, and updates within the FREE Network’s three joint projects were also presented. These go under the acronyms of FROMDEE (Forum for Research on Media and Democracy in Eastern Europe), FREECE (Forum for Research on Eastern Europe; Climate and the Environment) and FROGEE (Forum for Research on Gender Economics in Eastern Europe), and address areas of great relevance in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Researchers from all FREE Network institutes work on these topics, with the most recent policy paper written in coordination by SITE, KSE and CenEA (with expert Maja Bosnic, Niras International Consulting). The policy paper focuses on the gender dimension of the reconstruction of Ukraine – putting emphasis on the necessity of gender budgeting principles throughout the various parts of reconstruction. An upcoming joint research paper will consider the effects of gasoline price increase on household income across the Network’s countries, written under the FREECE umbrella.
The three themes of gender, media and democracy, and environment and climate are not only purely research topics within the institutes. They also reflect developments and challenges that the institutes to a various extent face in the respective contexts in which they operate. The work focusing on the reconstruction of Ukraine is an excellent example of an area that encompasses all three.
Another example of the relevance of the three themes features prominently in one of the institutes’ most tangible contribution to their respective societies: their education programs. Nataliia Shapoval, Vice President for Policy Research at Kyiv School of Economics (KSE), emphasized how KSE has – amid Russia’s war on Ukraine – managed to greatly expand. Over the past year, KSE has launched 8 new bachelor’s and master’s programs, some of which are directly targeted at ensuring postwar reconstruction competence. On a similar note, Lev Lvovskiy, Academic Director at the Belarusian Research and Outreach Center (BEROC) mentioned the likelihood of next year being able to offer students a bachelor’s program in economics and several business courses in Vilnius – BEROC’S new location. BEROC’s effort in providing quality education in economics to Belarus’ exile youth is considered a fundamental investment in the future of the country – providing a competent leading class capable of installing democracy and fair elections in Belarus once the current regime is gone. The emphasis on education was further highlighted by Salome Gelashvili, Practice Head, Agriculture & rural policy at the International School of Economics Policy Institute (ISET-PI) who not only mentioned the opening of a master’s program in Finance at ISET but also the fact that an increasing number of students who’ve recently graduated from PhD’s abroad are now returning to Georgia. Such investments into education are necessary to counter Russian propaganda in the region all three agreed, emphasizing the need to continually stem Russia’s negative influence in the region. This investment into education is also important to hinder countries from sliding away from democratic values – realized in Belarus and threatening in Georgia.
To further delve into the issues of democratic backsliding, a tendency that has been recently observed not only in the region but also more widely across the globe, FROMDEE will organize an academic conference in Stockholm on October 13th, 2023.
The 2023 FREE Network Retreat provided a great opportunity for the Networks’ participants to jointly take part of new research and to share experiences, opportunities, and knowledge amongst each other. The Retreat also served as reminder of the importance of continuously supporting economic and democratic development, through research, policy work, and networking, in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.
List of Presenters
- Konstantin Sonin, University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy
- Pamela Campa, Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics
- Igor Livshits, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
In a new paper (Meyersson, 2015) I examine the development effects of military coups. Coups overthrowing democratically elected leaders imply a very different kind of event than those overthrowing autocratic leaders, and these differences relate to the implementation of authoritarian institutions following a coup in a democracy. Although coups taking place in already autocratic countries show imprecise and sometimes positive effects on economic growth, in democracies their effects are distinctly detrimental to growth. Moreover, when coups overthrow democratic leaders, they fail to promote economic reforms, stop the occurrence of economic crises and political instability, as well as have substantial negative effects across a number of standard growth-related outcomes including health, education, and investment.
Do military coups matter for economic development? After all, successful coups – i.e. where the military or state elites have unseated an incumbent leader – have occurred 232 times in 94 states since 1950 (see Figure 1). Moreover, around a quarter of these overthrew democratically elected governments (Powell and Thyne, 2012). The prevalence of military coups has not been lost on researchers, yet despite an abundance of research aiming to explain the occurrence of coups (see for example Acemoglu and Robinson, 2001; Collier and Hoeffler, 2006 & 2007; Leon, 2014; Svolik, 2012) much less research has focused on its economic effects (two exceptions are the papers on covert US operations during the Cold War by Dube, Kaplan, and Naidu, 2011 and Berger, Easterly, Nunn, and Satyanath, 2013). Olsen (1963), for example, claimed that coups “often bring no changes in policy.” Londregan and Poole (1990), in their panel-data analysis, find no effects of coups on income.
By now, there is mostly a consensus that significant military influence in politics is detrimental for democracy (Dahl, 1971; Huntington, 1965; Linz and Stepan, 1996). Nonetheless, military coups overthrowing democratically elected governments are often met with ambiguity. Western governments have a long history of tacit support for military coups overthrowing democratic governments, be it left-leaning governments in Latin America or Islamist governments in the Middle East and North Africa (Schmitz 2006). Commentators expressing support for coups often do so invoking extreme outcomes to represent the counterfactual to the military coup; if Pinochet had not overthrown President Allende, the latter would have created a Castro-style regime in Chile; if the Algerian army hadn’t annulled the elections in 1992, the Islamist FIS would have turned Algeria into an Islamist dictatorship in the Maghreb, and so on (Los Angeles Times 2006, Open Democracy 2013). Similarly, the fault for the coup and preceding problems fall invariably upon the ousted leader, with the coup constituting an unfortunate, but necessary, means to rid the country of an incompetent, if not dangerous, leader (Foreign Policy, 2013).
Other commentators have pointed out the risks of allowing a military to intervene and dictate post-coup institutions to their advantage; a “Faustian” bargain likely to bring regime stability but no solution to the real underlying problems behind the conflict in the first place. Yet others lament the human rights abuses following coups, and the inherent ineptitude of military leaders in running the economy (NYT, 2013; New Republic, 2013; Washington Post, 2013).
Figure 1. Successful and Failed Coup Attempts by Country and Year
Notes: The graph shows successful (solid circles) and failed coup attempts (hollow circles) by country and year, and aggregated by country (right graph) as well as by year (top graph). A circle in blue means the political regime was classified by Cheibub et al 2010 as a democracy in the year before the attempt and a red circle means they classified the regime as an autocracy.
Military coups tend to be endogenous events, and establishing a causal relation between coups and development is therefore a challenge. The unobservable likelihood of a coup – often referred to as coup risk (Collier and Hoeffler, 2006 & 2007; Londregan and Poole, 1990; Belkin and Schofer, 2003) – may be driven by many factors also affecting a country’s development potential, such as weak institutions, the military’s political power, social conflict, and economic crises etc.
In order to address this problem, I employ several empirical strategies including comparing successful versus failed coup attempts, matching methods, as well as panel data techniques, using a dataset of coup attempts during the post-World War II era. These methods facilitate, in different ways, comparisons of development consequences of coups in situations with arguably more similar degrees of coup risk.
Of significant importance is distinguishing coups when they occur in clearly autocratic settings from those where they overthrow democratically elected governments. I show that a military coup overthrowing a regime in a country like Chad may have very different consequences than a military leader overthrowing a democratically elected president in a country like Chile. In the former, a coup appears to constitute the manner in which autocracies change leaders. In the latter, coups typically imply deeper institutional changes with long-run development consequences.
I find that, conditional on a coup-attempt taking place, the effect of coup success depends on the pre-intervention level of democratic institutions. In countries that were more democratic, a successful coup lowered growth in income per capita by as much as 1-1.3 percent per year over a decade. In more autocratic countries, I find smaller and more imprecisely estimated positive effects. This effect is robust to splitting the sample by alternative institutional measures, as well as to a range of controls relating to factors such as leader characteristics, wars, coup history, and natural resources. As Figure 2 illustrates, the economic effect of coups tend to worsen over time. Extending the analysis to matching and panel-data methods reveal these results to be highly robust.
Figure 2. Relationship between a Successful Coup and Growth in GDP per capita
Notes: The three graphs represent the coefficient on a successful coups on growth in GDP per capita (PPP) between year t-1 and t+s with s given by the x-axis for all regimes(left), autocracies (middle), and democracies (right). Controls include period t-1 values of log GDP per capita, annual growth, log population, PolityIV index, annual change in the PolityIV index military expenditures as a share of GDP, annual change in military exp/GDP, military personnel as a share of population, years since the last coup, total number of previous coups, social unrest, leader tenure, as well as continent and year dummies respectively. See Meyersson (2015) for details.
A commonly held view is that coups overthrowing democratically elected leaders often provide an opportunity for engaging in unpopular but much needed economic reforms. Not only do I show that coups fail at this, but also that they tend to reverse important economic reforms, especially in the financial sector, while also leading to increased indebtedness and an overall deteriorating net external financial position, and an increased propensity to suffer severe economic crises. A documented reduction in social spending suggests a shift in economic priorities away from the masses to the benefit of political and economic elites.
Whereas coups occur mostly in dire situations, their prescriptions, as shown, rarely constitute adequate remedies to the underlying problems, as the institutional changes brought by these events show clear detrimental development consequences. Any short-lived benefit of regime stability a coup brings, comes at a steep economic, political, and human cost in the longer run.
- Acemoglu, Daron and James A. Robinson, “A Theory of Political Transitions,” The American Economic Review, Vol. 91, No. 4 (Sep., 2001), pp. 938-963
- Berger, Daniel, William Easterly, Nathan Nunn, and Shanker Satyanath. 2013. ”Commercial Imperialism? Political Influence and Trade during the Cold War.” American Economic Review, 103(2): 863-96.
- Belkin, Aaron, and Evan Schofer, 2003,“Toward a Structural Understanding of Coup Risk”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 47 No. 5, October 2003 594-620
- Cheibub, Jos ́e Antonio, Jennifer Gandhi, and James Raymond Vreeland, 2010, “Democracy and dictatorship revisited,” Public Choice (2010) 143: 67-101.
- Collier, Paul and Anke Hoeffler, 2006, “Grand Extortion: Coup Risk and the Military as a Protection Racket,” working paper
- Collier, Paul and Anke Hoeffler, 2007, “Military Spending and the Risks of Coups d’ ́etat,” working paper.
- Dahl, Robert A., Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, Yale University Press 1971.
- Dube, Arindrajit, Ethan Kaplan, and Suresh Naidu, “Coups, Corporations, and Classified Infor- mation”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2011 (Vol. 126, Issue 3)
- Foreign Policy, “Blame Morsy,” Michael Hanna, July 10 2013,
- Huntington, Samuel P., 1965, “Political Development and Political Decay,” World Politics, 386- 429
- Leon, Gabriel, 2014, “Loyalty for Sale? Military Spending and Coups d’Etat,” Public Choice 159, 363-383
- Linz, Juan, and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe, Johns Hopkins University 1996
- Los Angeles Times, “Iraq needs a Pinochet”, Jonah Goldberg, December 14, 2006
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