Uncertainty, Process, Coups, and Transitions

The big news of the past twenty-four hours as been the unfolding situation in Zimbabwe (coverage at CNN, BBC, The Guardian, and the NY Times).

It is nearly impossible for observers to know what is going on at the moment. Is it a coup or not? Is 93-year old Robert Mugabe being sidelined, or overthrown, or just confined to his house until order is restored? All of the coverage of the situation in Zimbabwe is centered around answering these and other questions, to figure out what is really happening. The Al Jazeera article carrying the title “Zimbabwe: What’s Happening?” illustrates this well.

In that context it is helpful to step back from these details to consider what we know about coups and other forms of political transitions. A central insight from process-based conceptualizations of political transitions is the central role that uncertainty plays in political transitions. Uncertainty is not a bug, a problem of our ability to detect the “real” events on the ground from afar. Rather, uncertainty is a core feature of the politics of transitions; in the words of O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986),

the high degree of uncertainty and indeterminacy which surrounds those who participate in a transition, both with respect to their short-term interactions and, even more so, with respect to the medium- and long-term consequences which ensue. It is not just that the actors are uncertain about the identity, resources, and intentions of wthose with whom they are playing the transitional game. They are also aware (or should be aware) that their momentary confrontations, expedient solutions, and contingent compromises are in effect defining rules which may have a lasting but largely unpredictable effect on how and by whom the “normal” political game will be played in the future.

This has implications for how we approach the news coverage of events in Zimbabwe. The question “is it a coup or not” misses the very point of what’s happening: actors themselves may not know, the outcomes do not depend neatly on the intentions of the participants, and all players have incentives to bluff and misrepresent their true intentions and the strength of their positions. (O’Donnell and Schmitter call this “playing coup poker.”) What this means is that the “facts on the ground” to be uncovered are not some objective estimates of how strong various actors are, but the messy processes through which actors interact with one another in real time. It is just as interesting to ask “who do the coup participants think is listening to their proclamations?” as it is to examine what these actors are saying.

That this kind of politics is disorganized and uncertain is not a problem of us being able to detect what is happening, or a consequence of us being unable to wade through the noise to find out the true state of affairs. That it is disorganized is a reflection of the very nature of these kinds of transitional moments.