Last month, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a constitutional referendum to enhance the powers of the presidency, leading most observers to believe that he will now be able to govern Turkey without any challenges in the foreseeable future.
Our research shows that Erdogan’s attempt to dominate Turkish politics is far from unique. Erdogan resembles strong leaders in Latin America, such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Alberto Fujimori in Peru, who have also built competitive authoritarian regimes in their respective countries.
Among these three leaders, the Peruvian experience under Fujimori offers comparative lessons to Turkey. In both countries, presidents assumed nearly unlimited powers in the context of severe crises. Eventually, they put forward constitutional changes to adopt broader executive powers. While concentrating power in their hands, they have weakened other institutions including their own political parties.
A self-coup in Peru
Fujimori’s inability to develop a strong party was the main reason his power grab was not as successful as it initially appeared. In Turkey, there are signs that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is becoming President Erdogan’s personal vehicle. The durability of Turkey’s competitive authoritarian regime might be at risk.
In 1990, Peru elected Fujimori, a political outsider. After he took office, he faced an economic crisis and challenges from an insurgency group. Fujimori wanted to address them unilaterally, but the members of the parliament and the judiciary constrained his authority. Fujimori’s response was to launch a self-coup in 1992, closing the legislature and purging the judiciary.
While governing Peru with emergency decrees, like Erdogan, Fujimori convened a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. The 1993 Constitution, approved by 52 percent of Peruvians, allowed immediate presidential reelection, abolished the bicameral structure and brought back capital punishment. It significantly enhanced the powers of the presidency and turned the legislature into a rubber-stamp institution.
Under the new rules, Fujimori was comfortably reelected in 1995. During his second presidential term, Fujimori further skewed the playing field against his opponents. Through using the intelligence agency, the government threatened journalists and bribed judges.
His term would have ended in 2000, but his supporters claimed that his first term (1990-1995), under the previous constitution, would not count — a similar argument made by Erdogan for his 2014-2019 term. The opposition contested the effort to perpetuate Fujimori in power, but it had to operate in an unequal environment. The judiciary and the electoral board were packed with Fujimori supporters.
In 2000, Fujimori attempted to rig the elections in the first round to avoid a runoff. When the opposition decided to boycott the second round, Fujimori illegally won a third term. But his party failed to obtain a majority in the parliament. Following his reelection, a corruption scandal — involving his chief of intelligence — erupted. Facing the threat of impeachment, Fujimori fled to Japan and announced his resignation.
Party of one
Fujimori’s power grab eventually failed because he was unable to develop a strong political party. The consolidation of individual power undermined institutions. In a highly-personalized setting, party weakness pushed Fujimori to extralegal measures to remain in power. After he tried to rig the elections in 2000 and bribe the members of the opposition, his loose coalition quickly fell apart.
Since the survival of the regime depended on Fujimori personally, there was no politician within his party who could succeed him. A similar scenario can already be seen in Turkey.
When the AKP was founded in 2001, Erdogan was not the only high-profile figure. Today, all other key figures — including former president Abdullah Gul, former parliament speaker Bulent Arinc and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu — are relegated to the sidelines. None of them actively campaigned for a “yes” vote during the referendum. Instead, they voiced their concern about Erdogan’s desire to establish presidentialism. Meanwhile, current chairman of the AKP, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, acted like a figurehead to the referendum campaign — including championing the option to abolish his own seat.
Compared to Fujimori’s party, the AKP still has stable roots in society. The party also has strong organization at the grass-roots level. The bottom-up resistance to the recent coup attempt is evidence of that. But under the executive presidency, Erdogan will rely less on the AKP. Individual politicians will seek careers through personal relationship with the president instead of engaging in party building. Since the rules were designed to address Erdogan’s needs, it could possibly cause a succession crisis in the future.
Ties to the West
While the Trump administration signaled its approval of the Turkish referendum, other countries, especially in Europe, are less welcoming. Turkey is still a member of NATO and it has not yet withdrawn its candidacy to the European Union.
Turkey’s ties to the West might prevent it from sliding into full-scale authoritarianism. But Turkey also has strong leverage against the West. Currently, Turkey hosts over 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Erdogan occasionally threatens the E.U. with opening Turkey’s borders and letting migrants through to Europe.
The future of an competitive authoritarian regime in Turkey will rest on the AKP’s resilience against Erdogan’s personal agenda and Turkey’s complex relationship with the West. Peru’s experience suggests that in the long-term, it is more difficult to consolidate presidential power than it appears. If Fujimori offers any guide, then Erdogan is not yet guaranteed perpetual power.
Orçun Selçuk is a PhD candidate at Florida International University.
Astrid Arrarás is a senior lecturer at Florida International University. She teaches courses on democratization and Latin American politics.