Why did so many Peruvians vote for Keiko Fujimori, the candidate of a party rooted in the former authoritarian regime of her father, Alberto Fujimori? She lost the June presidential election by a mere 0.2 percent, while her Fuerza Popular (Popular Force) party won over 50 percent of congressional seats.
In fact, the bigger surprise is that Fujimori’s party has not yet been elected back into office. My research shows that a majority of new democracies vote back into office parties that trace their origins to authoritarian regimes — what I call “authoritarian successor parties” (ASPs). Peru is unusual not because it has a strong ASP — but because this party has not yet returned to power.
Authoritarian successor parties thrive in new democracies.
ASPs are parties that emerge from authoritarian regimes — but that operate after a transition to democracy. Some ASPs are former ruling parties of party-based dictatorships, such as the Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico. Others are formed by high-level authoritarian officials shortly before or shortly after a transition to democracy, such as the People’s Party in Spain, created by former ministers of the Franco dictatorship. Another example is Nidaa Tounes in Tunisia, created after the Arab Spring by former authoritarian officials, including current President Beji Caid Essebsi.
The defining characteristic of ASPs is that despite their authoritarian origins, they operate after a transition to democracy. These are not the ruling parties of existing electoral authoritarian regimes, such as Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party in Zimbabwe or ruling parties in Malaysia, Singapore and Russia. Instead, ASPs are parties that emerge from authoritarian regimes, but that today operate under democracy.
ASPs are extremely common, it turns out. To determine how prevalent they were, I started by listing all countries that democratized between 1974 and 2010. Drawing on data from the Autocratic Regimes Data Set compiled by Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright and Erica Frantz, I counted 65 cases of democratization.
I then looked at each new democracy to see if a prominent ASP had emerged. To be considered “prominent,” the ASP had to have won 10 percent or more in a single national election after the transition. Prominent ASPs emerged in 47 countries.
Finally, I looked to see if the ASP had been democratically returned to power. For this, I set a high bar: winning the presidency or prime minister’s office. In 36 countries, the ASP was elected back into office.
So of the 65 countries that experienced a transition to democracy during this period, 72 percent produced a prominent ASP. And over half of new democracies actually voted an ASP back into office via democratic elections.
Are ASPs the new normal?
ASPs are present in all major world regions. They are major actors not just in the post-communist world, but also in Africa, Asia and Latin America. They have returned to power everywhere from Mexico to Mongolia, Poland to Panama, Spain to South Korea, Taiwan to Tunisia.
What explains the success of ASPs? As parties that operate under democracy, they cannot employ authoritarian tactics like coercion, fraud or the gross abuse of state resources. Nevertheless, they may benefit from a number of resource advantages that I call their “authoritarian inheritance”:
1) Business connections. In countries where the business sector was part of the coalition supporting authoritarian rule, it may view the ASP as a trustworthy ally and support it financially. This was the case of South Korea’s Saenuri party (currently in power) and Chile’s Independent Democratic Union. Sometimes the ASP owns its own businesses, as in the case of Taiwan’s KMT, the richest party in the world. Business resources can help finance election campaigns and pay for handouts to party supporters.
2) Existing organizations. ASPs may also inherit grassroots organizations from authoritarian regimes. For over 70 years, the PRI made use of its powerful nationwide organization to win undemocratic elections in Mexico. After 2000, it continued to deploy this same organization to win democratic elections. Other ASPs have retrofitted organizations initially designed for different purposes. An example is El Salvador’s Nationalist Republican Alliance, which converted paramilitary networks into a massive get-out-the vote operation.
3) A strong party brand. Perhaps the most important — and controversial — form of authoritarian inheritance is a popular party “brand.” Many authoritarian regimes enjoy significant popular support. In Chile, Augusto Pinochet won 44 percent in a relatively free and fair plebiscite in 1988. In Mexico, 38 percent of the population self-identified as PRI supporters at the time of democratization in 2000 — more than the two main opposition parties combined. And in South Korea, surveys in the 2000s showed that a majority of the population had a favorable opinion of former military dictator Park Chung-hee (the father of current president, Park Geun-hye).
Here’s why: Some authoritarian regimes provide goods that people value. While many dictatorships perform abysmally, others provide economic growth, national defense, public security and a general sense of “order.” Such regimes generate popular brands. An ASP that inherits such a brand can use it to win votes in the new democracy.
And when new democracies perform poorly, authoritarian-era brands may become even more attractive. In Mexico, for example, the first two democratic governments (2000-2012) oversaw mediocre economic growth and an explosive drug war that resulted in thousands of deaths. Surveys prior to the 2012 election — which brought the PRI back to power — showed that 43 percent of the Mexican public believed that conditions had been better under the old PRI regime.
What does all this mean for democracy — and Peru, in particular?
Many Peruvians believe their country dodged a bullet — that a Keiko Fujimori presidency would have pushed Peru back toward authoritarianism. They might be right. Some democracies have broken down after an ASP returned to power. Examples include the Dominican Republic after Social Christian Reformist Party candidate Joaquín Balaguer regained the presidency in 1986; Madagascar after Rebirth of Madagascar candidate Didier Ratsiraka returned to power in 1997; and Nicaragua after Sandinista National Liberation Front candidate Daniel Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007.
Even in cases where democracy has not broken down, ASPs have sometimes hurt democratic regimes by protecting vestiges of the authoritarian past such as special privileges for the military or by shielding human rights violators from justice.
Yet in most cases, democracy has not broken down after an ASP returned to power. Typically, nothing much happens. Poland’s democracy survived the return of the communists to power in the mid-1990s, just a few years after the communist regime fell. Panama’s democracy survived the return of the former military regime’s Democratic Revolutionary Party to power in 1994, just four years after the U.S. invasion that toppled Manuel Noriega. And Ghana’s democracy survived the return of former dictator Jerry Rawlings’s party, the National Democratic Congress, to the presidency in 2008 after two terms out of office.
ASPs may even have some positive effects on democracy by helping to include former authoritarian incumbents in the new regime (thus discouraging them from becoming “spoilers”). This could inspire autocrats elsewhere to initiate their own transitions to democracy by showing that there is life after dictatorship.
For such a widespread phenomenon, ASPs and their impact remain poorly understood. One thing, however, is clear: For better or worse, they are a normal part of the democratization experience. It is normal for them to exist, and it is normal for them to return to office. If Keiko Fujimori had won the presidency, this would not have been a freak outcome. What is really surprising about Peru is the opposite: that its ASP hasn’t returned to power.
James Loxton is a lecturer in comparative politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.