On Wednesday, tens of thousands of Venezuelans protested the country’s worsening economic crisis — and the president behind it.
The response of President Nicolás Maduro to one of Latin America’s worst episodes of political unrest in decades has been to clamp down. The government suspended elections, dissolved the opposition-controlled legislature and arrested scores of protesters. Venezuela’s most prominent opposition leader has been barred from holding public office.
This level of repression suggests Venezuelan officials believe they cannot win elections under current circumstances — and they fear Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) cannot survive out of office. This first concern may be true, but for many former authoritarian ruling parties, there is life after dictatorship.
What happens after a dictatorship?
While the hugely unpopular Maduro is unlikely to have much of a political career in a hypothetical democratic future, the PSUV could thrive as an “authoritarian successor party.” These are parties that emerge from authoritarian regimes, but continue to operate after the country transitions to democracy.
This isn’t a new trend. Authoritarian successor parties have been present in nearly three-quarters of all new democracies since the mid-1970s. They are major actors in Africa, Asia and post-communist Europe. More than half the time, these parties are in fact voted back into office.
Latin America is no exception: These parties have been prominent in 11 of 15 countries (73 percent) that have democratized since the 1970s. Voters in nine of these countries voted these parties back into office.
Here’s why this happens. Research by one of us shows they benefit from their “authoritarian inheritance” — the party brand, territorial organization, and party finances that continue to generate political support. Paradoxically, these benefits help them succeed under democracy.
Of course, these parties can also suffer from “authoritarian baggage.” Prior human rights abuses or poor governmental performance, for instance, can be heavy burdens. Whether the party is likely to succeed or fail depends on the balance of the two: the more inheritance and less baggage, the better.
The strategies for rebounding
Many factors affect this balance, particularly the performance of the authoritarian regime and the timing of the transition to democracy. With regard to timing, Dan Slater and Joseph Wong argue that it is in the interests of authoritarian officials to concede democratization in good times rather than waiting for a crisis, as doing so will minimize their authoritarian baggage. They call this “conceding to thrive.”
This scenario is no longer viable for Venezuela, given the depth of its current crisis. So the PSUV, like other authoritarian parties, may need other strategies to offload its authoritarian baggage and rebound.
One strategy is “contrition,” when party leaders apologize for the abuses of the old regime. Another is “obfuscation,” with the party downplaying its links to the old regime. A final strategy is “scapegoating,” with the party embracing a “good” dictator, but denouncing a “bad” dictator. The party offloads its authoritarian baggage onto the “bad” dictator, while profiting from the aspects of the old regime that voters remember fondly.
The lessons from Panama
This is where Venezuela’s PSUV could learn from Panama, where the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) rebounded after two dictators: the popular Omar Torrijos, and the highly unpopular Manuel Noriega. The parallels between the popular and unpopular dictators in Panama and Venezuela are striking.
From the time he took power in a 1968 coup until his death in 1981, General Torrijos dominated Panama. He later served as an inspiration for Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Chávez was elected president in 1998 (after a failed coup in 1992), and then imposed an increasingly authoritarian regime.
Both Torrijos and Chávez were populist nationalists. They launched policies aimed at improving the lives of the poor and engaged in nationalist crusades. In 1977, Torrijos secured from the United States eventual control of the Panama Canal. Chávez railed against U.S. imperialism. Both leaders earned widespread popularity at home, as well as among left-leaning celebrities abroad, such as the novelist Graham Greene in the case of Torrijos and actor Sean Penn and director Oliver Stone in the case of Chávez.
After Torrijos’ death, Manuel Noriega, his former head of military intelligence, assumed power. Maduro likewise stepped in when Chávez died in March 2013. Noriega’s rule, like Maduro’s, was marked by repression, drug trafficking, and economic ruin. Noriega sought legitimacy by wrapping himself in the mantle of “Torrijismo.” There are many parallels with Maduro and his evocation of “Chavismo.”
Like Maduro, Noriega never achieved the popularity of his predecessor. When the U.S. military overthrew Noriega in 1990, 86 percent of Panamanians viewed it as a “liberation” rather than an “invasion.”
Here’s how scapegoating revived the PRD
All of this meant a lot of baggage for Panama’s PRD: A poll in late 1990 showed it had the support of only 6 percent of the population. And yet the PRD quickly rebounded. It won the first post-invasion election in 1994, won the presidency again in 2004, and has won the most votes in every legislative election except in 2014.
The PRD rebounded because of scapegoating. It blamed its past sins on Noriega, while romanticizing Torrijismo and taking advantage of a massive territorial organization. In 1994, the PRD’s presidential candidate denounced Noriega as “an opportunist, a traitor and a disgrace,” and “the worst leader since Panama’s independence,” while praising Torrijos as “a hero.”
To this day, the PRD logo is an “O” with the number “11” inside — a reference to the October 11, 1968, coup that brought Torrijos to power. In 1999 and 2004, the PRD chose Torrijos’s son, Martín, as its presidential candidate. He won the second time, and his campaign song was called “Omar Lives.”
So what does this mean for Venezuela?
What happened in Panama suggests that parties can survive the collapse of a dictatorship, provided they find a strategy to offload their authoritarian baggage. Maduro, like Noriega, makes a perfect scapegoat. He has little charisma, and his government has overseen an economic catastrophe. By throwing Maduro under the bus, Venezuela’s PSUV could rebound.
However, the longer the PSUV sticks with Maduro, the less viable this strategy becomes. The more the PSUV comes to be seen as “Madurista,” rather than “Chavista,” the less credible it will seem if it later attempts to scapegoat Maduro.
For that reason, it may be in the interests of party leaders to abandon Maduro and pursue a return to democracy sooner rather than later. This may mean losing an election or two in the near term. But the PSUV could still thrive in the long term as an authoritarian successor party.
James Loxton is a lecturer in comparative politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.
Javier Corrales (@jcorrales2011) is Dwight W. Morrow 1895 Professor of Political Science at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. He is the co-author of “Dragon in the Tropics: The Legacy of Hugo Chávez” (Brookings, 2nd edition, 2015).