Thailand has been engulfed in political crisis for a week now, with street protests pushing to outright topple the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The crisis is especially serious given that Thailand has experienced more coups d’état than any other country in contemporary history. Scholars sometimes describe the era beginning in 1932 and running up through today as Thailand’s “coup season.” Since 1932, Thailand has endured an astonishing 11 successful military coups, as well as seven attempted coups.
Thailand-watchers are divided on whether this crisis appears likely to spark successful coup number 12. Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations says it could. The Economist’s writer in Bangkok argues a coup is unlikely at this point.
To better understand why Thailand has so many coups, whether we should worry about another one and what makes countries susceptible to coups in general, I talked to Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who specializes in state failure and also works as a consultant. While not a Thailand expert, Jay has done lots of research on coups and the risk factors that can lead to them. A lightly edited version of our e-mail exchange follows.
WorldViews: What are some of the most important factors that make countries susceptible to coups? Does Thailand appear to have those?
Jay Ulfelder: The most informative factors in thinking about coup risk are a country’s wealth, its form of government, and the recent occurrence of coup activity. Coup attempts very rarely happen in countries that are rich, either fully dictatorial or fully democratic, and have no coup activity in the recent past. Almost all coup attempts, successful or failed, occur in countries that are relatively poor and have political regimes that mix features of autocracy and democracy.
These mixed regimes are especially susceptible to coups when politics within them is sharply polarized, as it has been in Thailand for nearly a decade now.
Coup activity also tends to cluster, so countries that have seen one or more attempts in the past five years are several times as likely to get hit by another than countries that have been coup-free for a while. We saw this pattern recently in Mali and Egypt, among other places.
Thailand has some important risk factors but not others, so it winds up in the middle of the global pack in terms of risk. It has a mixed regime with sharply polarized politics, but it’s now a middle-income country, and it’s managed to muddle along without another coup attempt since 2006. Of course, coups are very rare events — nowadays, we usually only see a handful of attempts worldwide each year — so even being in the middle of the pack translates into a very low likelihood, like less than 5 percent.