By Max Fisher January 28 at 1:44 pm
Click to enlarge. Data source: Jay Ulfelder coup forecasts for 2014. (Max Fisher/Washington Post)
Coups are bad news for any country. They weaken the rule of law, throw governments into chaos, undermine or outright jettison democratic norms and institutions, and can lead to violence, oppression or worse. They can also be tough to see coming, particularly since the people looking for them tend to focus on a single country, which can lead them to overemphasize local events and understate the broader dynamics that make coups happen, or not.
That's a big part of why political scientist Jay Ulfelder has, for the past three years, maintained a mathematical model to predict the likelihood of coups in almost every country around the world. By tracking over a dozen variables – from political system to years of independence the presence of absence of an "elite" ethnic group – Ulfelder's model roughly estimates the likelihood that each country will experience a coup this year. He "trained" the model by applying it over the years 1960 to 2010, further developing its ability to predict future coups by looking at past ones.
Ulfelder kindly shared his full dataset with me, which I've mapped out above. The redder countries are at higher risk for a coup and the yellower countries at lower risk. You can read his post here for much, much more about how he designed this model and what makes it work.
Here are a few notes to help you read this map. First, even the most extreme cases are well below a 50 percent likelihood of a coup, meaning that a coup probably won't occur. Those would be the West African countries of Guinea and Mali (26.5 percent and 22.7 percent likelihoods of coups) and Madagascar, at 23.9 percent likelihood. Those numbers are high enough, though, to be appropriately alarming. Second, the numbers drop off quickly, with the vast majority of countries less than 5 percent likelihood of a coup, and half of them less than 1.5 percent. So the difference between a dark red country and a light orange or yellow country is very significant.
There are a few immediately obvious trends in the data. First, it doesn't look good for sub-Saharan Africa, which has the top nine most at-risk countries. Not all of Africa, to be clear, much of which is quite stable, but the risk is heavily concentrated in Africa's Sahel region (that east-west strip just below the Saharan desert) and in West and Central Africa. There are complex political, ethnic and post-colonial reasons for this, which I wrote about here. Looking forward, political instability and competition risks holding back a part of the world that is otherwise poised for long-overdue economic growth.
Here is a chart Ulfelder put together showing the 40 most at-risk countries. For each country, he's run two different models and then averaged the results. That bold dot is the average score:
The 40 countries most at risk for a coup in 2014 (Jay Ulfelder)
The stand-outs beyond sub-Saharan Africa also tell some interesting stories. The highest-ranked non-African country is Thailand, with a projected 10.9 percent likelihood of a coup this year. By some measurements, Thailand has more coups than any other countries on earth (here's why) and is currently experiencing another round of protests and political turmoil. Afghanistan and Pakistan are at high risk, though for different reasons (deep ethnic and political competition in Afghanistan, an independent-leaning military in Pakistan, weak civilian governments in both). Egypt, which saw a coup in 2013, has a projected 9 percent chance of another this year. Further afield are Haiti and Ecuador, the only two countries in the Western hemisphere with significant risks for coups, with 9.2 and 8.5 percent projected, respectively. (This is why I wrote, in June, that NSA leaker Edward Snowden would be wise to turn down Ecuador's offer of asylum; the next government could change its mind.)
It's also worth pausing to appreciate the luxury many countries have of not worrying about coups. A lot of democratic as well as authoritarian states, rich as well as poor, have strong enough rule of law and institutional norms that they don't have to worry about coups. Ulfelder's model predicts only a 0.15 percent chance in the United States; many Western democracies show similar scores. So do some countries experiencing political turmoil, such as Greece and Cuba (0.14 and 0.21 percent risk, respectively). Iran, for all its problems and political infighting, only rates a 1.43 percent chance of a coup. That's probably great news for the United States: even if we don't like the Iranian government, it's preferable to chaos, and a government that can negotiate without worrying about a military coup has a freer hand to accept any U.S. nuclear deal.
For more on coups, what makes them likely or not, and the implications of this data, bookmark Ulfelder's blog, which will be revisiting these topics throughout the year.