Barring a last-minute surprise, 2018 will pass without a single attempted coup d’etat worldwide. We heard allegations of a coup plot in the Philippines and read reports of a foiled plot and further scheming in Venezuela, but neither of these situations produced an overt attempt to seize power. We also watched elected leaders try or succeed at cementing their hold on power in a number of countries, including Hungary, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, and Turkey, but these consolidations of incumbent advantage fall outside the definition of a coup d'etat used here.[1]

A year with no coup attempts is quite rare. The chart below shows the annual occurrence and outcomes of coup attempts worldwide since 1950. The letters stacked in the columns are ISO3 country codes, while the colors indicate each attempt’s outcome: red for success, gray for failure.

  • Only twice in the past nearly-70 years have we seen a calendar year come and go with zero coup attempts: 2007, and now 2018.
  • The zero in 2018 follows two years in which we saw just a single attempt and another year with just two.

coups.stack.events.2018-1

The low counts in recent years are part of a long-term decline in the frequency of coup attempts worldwide. The causes of this trend are complex, but the end of the Cold War played an important role. During the Cold War, geopolitics was widely framed as a zero-sum game between the U.S. and the USSR, and those rival superpowers sometimes supported or endorsed coups as a way to replace hostile governments with friendly ones, or to block the ouster of governments they favored. The end of the Cold War removed this framing—and one of the superpowers involved—and it triggered changes in international norms that have also made coups harder to perpetrate and consolidate.

The rarity of a coup-free year and the post-Cold War shift are even easier to see when we look at the distribution of years by total coup attempts. In the histogram below, the numbers stacked into columns are years, and the colors distinguish the Cold War (pink) from the post-Cold War period (maroon). Four of the six observations at the lowest end of the distribution have come in the past six years, and almost all of the post-Cold War years are crammed together on the left.

coups.stack.years.2018-1

So, will the recent trend hold in 2019?

  • In a post for The Conversation, One Earth Future Foundation’s CoupCast project reports an 81-percent chance of at least one coup attempt worldwide in the coming year, with a 56-percent chance of at least one attempt in Africa in particular.
  • We can also use a Bayesian structural time series model to forecast the global count for 2019. That approach implies a 69-percent chance of at least one attempt, but just a 14-percent chance of three or more attempts.[2]

Based on these estimates, we should expect new coup activity in 2019, and Africa is the region most likely to produce it, but we probably should be surprised if we see more than a couple tries at coups again worldwide before 2020.

NOTES

[1] We're using data compiled by Profs. Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, who define coups d'etat as “overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means.” They consider a coup attempt successful “if the coup perpetrators seize and hold power for at least seven days.” See here for the data, which they typically update within a week or two of new coup attempts, and here for their scholarly discussion of the dataset.

[2] We used the 'bsts' package in R to fit a Poisson model with a local linear trend.

Jay Ulfelder

Political science Ph.D. (Stanford 1997), research director for the US government-funded Political Instability Task Force (2001-2011), Good Judgment Project superforcaster.