What 66 years of data tells us: Another coup in Turkey wouldn’t be shocking

Are coups really that unexpected or not?
What 66 years of data tells us: Another coup in Turkey wouldn’t be shocking
What 66 years of data tells us: Another coup in Turkey wouldn’t be shocking
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By Christine Garcia

On July 15, 2016, a group within the Turkish Armed Forces tried to seize control of the Turkish government. The attempted coup ended a day later when forces loyal to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan beat back the dissidents. Predictably, there was an explosion of news articles and commentary about the coup, its implications for Turkey, and how this coup compared to previous coups. However, we noticed something odd in these articles. They were terribly inconsistent. Some news sites proclaimed the coup astonishing while others dismissed it as just another Turkish coup (maybe even a staged one). Some predicted economic doom for Turkey while others said the effect of the coup would be an unnoticeable blip in its economic history. In short, the conversation around Turkey's coup had confusion in spades.

The quickest way to cut through confusion is to get data. That's why we decided to analyze data on 475 attempted coups all over the world from 1950 to the present. This post highlights some awesome insights that our analysis threw up, including coup organizers' uncanny love of certain dates, just how common a failed coup is, and the likelihood of Turkey having another coup in the future (hint: it's pretty high).


We used Jonathan Powell & Clayton Thyne's "Coup D'etat Dataset" (1950-2016) as the base for our analysis. This data set merges all previous classifications and lists of coups. For more information on Powell and Thyne's definition of a coup, check out their article. The Powell/Thyne data set has two important parts — a list of over 2,000 possible coups (1950 to 2010) with supplementary details, and a final list of over 470 global coups (updated in real time). We merged the two data sets to create a master data set with details on every coup from 1950 to 2016. We also pulled historical exchange rate data from the PACIFIC Exchange Rate Service, provided by Professor Werner Antweiler. Note that the Powell/Thyne data set uses "coups" to refer to both attempted and successful coups. We will do the same thing in this article for consistency.

Coups are fairly common...

Many news outlets and commenters expressed surprise at Turkey's coup, calling it unexpected or surreal, even considering Turkey's tumultuous history. Meanwhile, others seemed unimpressed with yet another coup in our increasingly chaotic world. On the surface, these positions seem mutually exclusive — are coups really that unexpected or not? There is truth in both sides. Coups are pretty common. Since 1950, there have been 475 coups across 95 countries. That's 7.2 coups per year on average. Here's the kicker: At least one coup has occurred every single year since 1950 except 2007. Let that sink in.

The same pattern is true at a country level. For countries with at least 1 coup, the average number of coups per country is 5. Bolivia topped the charts with 23 coups in just 35 years (from 1950 to its last coup in 1984). On average, that means the country couldn't even get through two years without a coup. How does Turkey fit into this narrative? TIME claimed that Turkey "has seen more than its fair share of coups". However, Turkey is not far from average. It has experienced a total of 6 coups (including the coup this month), which is only slightly higher than the average of 5 coups per country.

...but coups are becoming rarer.

With all the terrorist activity and violence in the news, it can seem like volatility and instability are the new normal. However, if coups are any measure of instability, the world has actually become more stable. Over the past few decades, coups have shown a steady decline.

The average number of coups per year dropped from its peak of 12.3 in the 1960s to 2.9 in the years since 2000. What do you think could be the reason for this?

Coups are often unsuccessful.

Some news sites expressed surprise over the failure of Turkey's attempted coup, insisting that the coup must have been poorly planned (or even a conspiracy). As Aaron Stein summarized, "The narrative following the coup is that this was a small, ill-conceived group of plotters who failed to overthrow the elected government".

However, it's fairly normal for a coup to be unsuccessful. Since 1950, 50.3% of all attempted coups have failed. That's 239 failed coups out of 475 total. Within a given country, only 49.6% of all attempted coups are successful on average. 

If anything, the percentage of successful coups has declined in the short term. Fun fact: 2016 is the second year in a row with no successful coups.

Coups happen exactly at the beginning, middle, and end of the month.

Three of the most common days of the month for coups are the 1st, 15th, and 30th. Yes, exactly the beginning, middle, and end of the month. Turkey's attempted coup fits with this pattern, since it occurred on July 15th. We won't speculate on why this happens, but perhaps coup instigators secretly want a memorable date?

A coup's success doesn't correlate with the number of previous coups.

One popular misconception is that countries with more coups are more unstable, so future coups are more likely to succeed. However, the data shows this link to be false. There appears to be no correlation between the number of coups in a given country and the success rate of those coups.

It shouldn't be surprising that Turkey had a 6th coup...

Turkey's 6th coup shocked many, since it came after 36 years of an apparently stable democratic government. However, the data shows that it was reasonable that Turkey, having gone through five coups, would have a sixth coup. A staggering 86.8% of countries with 5 attempted coups went on to have a 6th coup. Those countries had an average of 4 additional coups (within the timespan of our data set).

What does this chart mean? 48.7% of the countries that had 0 coups went on to have at least 1 coup. 80.0% of the countries that had 1 coup went on to have at least 2 coups. And so on... The big takeaway from this data — countries that have at least one coup often continue having more coups in the future, at least based on historical coup data. Once a country has that first coup, it's reasonable to expect that the country will continue having coups. After all, for countries with at least 1 coup, the average number of coups per country is 5.

...and it won't be surprising if Turkey has a 7th coup

After July 15, Turkey has now experienced 6 coups. According to our data, 81.8% of countries with 6 coups went on to have a 7th coup. This means that we shouldn't be surprised if Turkey has a 7th coup in the future.

If anyone knows of a good data set classifying historical coups by their regime type pre- or post-coup, let us know! We're on the hunt for more data.

This article first appeared on SocialCops and can be found here.

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author. 

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