James Loxton Explains Why Authoritarian Successor Parties Succeed in Democracies

James Loxton

James Loxton explains why authoritarian successor parties succeed in democracies through a conversation about conservative parties in Latin America. He is the author of the forthcoming Conservative Party-Building in Latin America: Authoritarian Inheritance and Counterrevolutionary Struggle. This is the 47th episode of the Democracy Paradox podcast.

Authoritarian Successor Parties on SpotifyAuthoritarian Successor Parties on AppleAuthoritarian Successor Parties on Google Authoritarian Successor Parties on Stitcher

They really view their history as one of victimization, one of struggle and even martyrdom. ARENA had multiple leaders assassinated. Again, that version of history that I just told you, that’s not necessarily my view. But I do actually believe that that is their sincere belief and it makes for a really compelling founding myth if you will. And I think that founding myth has helped to hold both parties together right up until the present day.

James Loxton

Key Highlights Include

  • Why do voters elect leaders with ties to former dictators?
  • Description of authoritarian successor parties
  • Challenges for conservative party formation
  • A brief history of the UDI in Chile and ARENA in El Salvador
  • The role of counterrevolutionary struggle

Podcast Transcript

It’s difficult to imagine a dictator as anything, but a tyrant. But dictatorships do not simply position an autocrat against the people. There is genuine support for authoritarian regimes. And after democratization, these supporters do not forget their prior allegiance nor do the reasons for their support disappear. What I am saying is hard for me to believe, but former dictators have support in democracies. And their support can translate into successful political parties. James Loxton writes, “These parties succeeded not despite their roots in dictatorship, but because of them.”

Latin America is largely democratic today, but has a history of military dictatorships. Many of its conservative political parties emerged from the supporters of these oppressive regimes. James Loxton has spent the past ten years making sense of the phenomenon of authoritarian successor parties. He is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney and the author of the forthcoming book Conservative Party-Building in Latin America: Authoritarian Inheritance and Counterrevolutionary Struggle. This is his first book, but he has published important work alongside giants of political science like Steven Levitsky and Scott Mainwaring. 

Our goal is not to glorify conservative parties or their supporters. Look, I will not be surprised if you dislike the founders and even their tactics. But democracy is complicated. It brings together diverse opinions and perspectives, even past supporters of oppressive, authoritarian regimes, to make collective decisions together. My conversation with James helps make sense of this phenomenon and why it helps to consolidate democracy. But let me warn you… Some of the ideas in this conversation will blow your mind. This is my conversation with James Loxton…


James Loxton, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.


Oh, thanks, Justin. It’s a pleasure to be here.


Well, James, I had read a few of your articles before I read your forthcoming book. And one of the earliest was a piece in the Journal of Democracy called “Authoritarian Successor Parties.” And there’s a quote in that article where you write, “If a party with deep roots in dictatorship performs well at the polls under free and fair conditions, it is harder to explain. Instead of saying “good riddance” after the fall of a dictatorship, millions of voters around the world have opted to vote for parties led by the very people who previously ruled them in an authoritarian—and often brutal—manner.” You raise such a difficult question in that passage. And I think it actually gets to the heart of your work. So, James, why do voters elect leaders with ties to former dictatorships?


Wow, well, that’s really the million-dollar question and I guess before getting directly to that question, I just want to make clear that this is an extremely common phenomenon. So, when I first started learning about authoritarian successor parties, my reaction was the same as it is for you, and as it is for many people, which is, ‘Wow, this is strange. You know. This is some idiosyncratic thing that we find in X country.’ So, in Chile, for example, which is a country that I have spent a lot of time in and spend a lot of time researching, there’s this party called the Independent Democratic Union, the U D I, or UDI.

And it is an avowedly Pinochetista party. It grew out of the military dictatorship. Virtually all of its early leaders had occupied positions in the military regime. And after the transition to democracy, it went out of its way to make the most provocative gestures of loyalty imaginable to the former dictatorship. So, on September the 11th, 1990, which was the anniversary of the 1973 coup and this was just about six months after the return of democracy. The UDI organize all these events to celebrate the coup and they actually presented letters of gratitude to former members of the military junta culminating with Pinochet himself on September 11th. They gave him this letter of gratitude, thanking him for saving the country. That’s how they viewed it and they’ve continued to do this right down to the present.

So, how could a party like this, do so well under democracy? And it has done well since the turn of the millennium. It has been the most voted for party in legislative elections. Many Chileans identify with this party. A plurality of Chileans, identify with the party. So, wow. That’s strange. Are Chileans weird? Is there an authoritarian culture? I don’t think so and it turns out that virtually everywhere that you have a transition to democracy, during what’s called the third wave of democratization, so from the mid 1970s onwards, you find parties like this.

And so, in a study that I did a few years ago, I looked at every single country in the world that had one transition or more to democracy since the mid 1970s, up until 2010. It was about 65 countries. Then I went and I looked at how many of those countries produced a prominent authoritarian successor party, a party like this one that I mentioned in Chile, the UDI, and it was actually 48 countries. And then I looked to see how many of those countries was the party voted back in the office. And it was actually in 36 countries.

So, what that means is that if you look at all the countries that democratized, since the mid 1970s, what you find is that in nearly three quarters, you have a prominent authoritarian successor party. And this is the really wild part. In a majority of countries, in over half of all countries that democratized during this period, the party actually gets elected back into the office. And by that, I mean, winning the prime minister’s office or the presidency in an election after the transition. So, this is really common.

I think there are a number of reasons why people, whether they be Chileans or Taiwanese or Polish people or Mexicans or Ghanaians or Tunisians vote for these parties, but let’s just go right to the most controversial one, which is that like it or not many authoritarian regimes have significant popular support. And I personally find this to be normatively, very discomforting. I wish that this were not true, but it is true. And one of the reasons why many authoritarian regimes enjoy the support, perhaps not of a majority of the population, but let’s say a large minority of the population is that some authoritarian regimes govern well.

The Chilean regime, in my opinion again, I think this was quite a heinous dictatorship, I don’t have any sympathy with it, but Pinochet famously put in place an economic model that eventually generated really significant economic growth which put it right on the brink of becoming a developed country. On top of that, you always have to look at what came before the dictatorship. And what you find is that often dictatorships come to power after a period of extreme polarization. You know, polarization, this word that we hear often today for good reason. But if you really think about what that means, it means you have the population divided into two bands, two camps that despise each other.

So in the case of Chile, Salvador Allende, the leftist president who was overthrown by Pinochet. In 1973, he was beloved by many Chileans. He was also loathed by many Chileans and many people were happy when he was overthrown. And that translated into support for the military dictatorship. So, you find authoritarian successor parties in most democracies, and a big reason for that is that many authoritarian regimes enjoy a significant base of popular support. Not all but many do.


Now, obviously there are authoritarian successor parties on the right and the left. For instance, in post-communist countries, we’ve got former communist parties that have been remodeled as socialist parties that have done exceptionally well. I would imagine that if Venezuela would democratize again, you would see an authoritarian successor party arise from the former Chavez regime. But your book is about authoritarian successor parties from the right that are conservative. So, why is a viable, conservative party important for democracy? And more importantly, why has it been so hard to establish a viable, conservative party in many democracies, especially in Latin America?


So, that’s a great question. So, there’s actually a pretty well-established argument in the literature and, in particular, in the literature on Latin American politics, about the importance of conservative parties for democratic stability. The first person who made this argument was an Argentine political scientist named Torcuato di Tella. And he published a really important article in 1971 about this. And I mentioned Argentina because it is famously one of the world’s worst democratic under performers. It was a pretty well-off country at the turn of the 20th century by world standards at the time. Modernization theory, which is a big theory in comparative politics, has said that richer countries are more likely to be democratic. And yet in Argentina, you have coup after coup after coup after coup during the 20th century. So, it was an outlier to modernization theory.

Now, di Tella said the problem with Argentina is that it didn’t have a strong party that could represent rich people. And the idea here is that rich people exist in all countries and they will always find a way of having their interests represented. That’s a constant. What is uncertain is whether they will do so democratically and peacefully through a conservative party or whether they will do so in an authoritarian way and violently by knocking on the barracks door and fomenting a coup. And so, in Argentina, because the first option wasn’t present, often they would knock on the barrack’s door. In 1996, a terrific scholar named Edward Gibson, also a Latin Americanist, he showed that this applied to the rest of Latin America.

And now more recently, Daniel Ziblatt, also a terrific scholar, he’s shown that this theory has legs that it also applies to Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. So, the reason it’s important to have a conservative party again is that it’s better to have rich powerful people expressing their interests peacefully through parties than by fomenting coups.  And so even if you’re not a conservative personally, you should still want there to be a strong conservative party if you think that democracy is a good thing.


Now, one of the challenges though, in Latin America specifically probably more so than any other region in the world is that it’s not just about conservatives getting elected to office. It’s about creating a viable party. And I think, that’s really something that drew me a lot to your work. To be honest, James, we see a lot of work that has a very institutional focus and it assumes, ‘Oh, if we just design this political system this way, then things will work out magically. The conservative party will arise because we have a proportional representation system, because we establish these different rules for the electoral system.’ And you really get down to an idea that comes down to the nuts and bolts, which is that it’s difficult to form parties that are sustainable. Explain the challenges for party formation.


So, you’re absolutely right that when people look for a solution to a situation where you don’t have strong parties the go-to thing is usually, ‘Oh, let’s tinker with institutions.’ And that usually makes no difference whatsoever. I’m not saying that institutions don’t matter in other ways, they do, but when it comes to creating strong parties, it seems to have very little effect. So, there are a number of challenges, but the first thing I just want to flag is, I mean, you rightly point out that it is hard to build new parties, and it turns out that it’s extremely difficult.

So, in another study that I did with my former dissertation advisor, Steve Levitsky, and Brandon Van Dyke, we looked at every single new party formed in Latin America from 1978 until 2005 for every party that won at least 1%. And we found that over 300 parties were formed. So party formation is very easy. By party formation I just mean registering your party with the legal authority. But almost all of those parties fizzled. Sometimes they experienced a brief moment of glory, but then they disappeared. So, of those 300 parties only 11 actually put down roots. So, four percent. So, party formation, super easy. Party building, extremely difficult.

All right. So why? There are a number reasons, but a really interesting one, I think, is a concept that the political scientist Henry Hale calls party substitutes. So, why did politicians form parties in the past? Well, they formed parties so that they could win elections. This was a really valuable technology, if you will, a kind of organizational technology for winning elections. But as time has gone on and, in particular, as the media landscape has changed, it’s not that they’re without value, but it’s that they’re not indispensable anymore for actually winning office. So, in the 1990s, people started to use terms like telepopulism, for example, to describe politicians who would just bypass parties altogether. And they would use television to directly contact would be voters. And technology has advanced a lot since then obviously with the rise of social media.

Sometimes people will describe, Bolsonaro in Brazil or Duterte in the Philippines, for example, as WhatsApp presidents, because they use the technology of WhatsApp so effectively. But what this means then for parties is that if it’s not as important to have a strong party, as in the past, some politicians will just be tempted to forgo them all together. And if I can just give you my favorite example. In many countries, the institutional tinkering that we were talking about earlier, will take the form of saying, ‘Well, you must have a party if you want to get elected.’ And the idea there is this will really force them to do it. But all that forces politicians to do is to create a legal fiction, a throwaway personalistic vehicle.

So, in the 2016 election in Peru, there was a candidate, the candidate who won ultimately, it was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. It’s a difficult name to say, so everybody just called him PPK. So PPK didn’t come from a party, but he decided he wanted to be president. So, he created a new party. Can you guess what the acronym of PPK’s party was? PPK, which stands for Peruvians for Change. Although in order for that to work, you actually had to misspell change, write it with a K in Spanish, which doesn’t make any sense. And then the party of course disappeared after he got elected and was later forced to resign. So, it’s just not as important as it used to be.


Wendy Hunter wrote an interesting article about the Workers Party called, “The Normalization of an Anomaly,” in World Politics years ago. And she stressed the fact that almost every single one of the political parties in Brazil was a personalistic vehicle like you had just described, except for the Workers Party. And the reason why it succeeded so well was because they bucked the entire trend and chose to focus on a consistent ideology, rather than just focus on the party as a personalistic vehicle, which to be honest is somewhat ironic today because it’s very Lula centric.

But still, it goes back to your point that a lot of these political parties have oftentimes been personalistic vehicles which can somewhat be a danger. In fact, I’d like to ask you, do politicians obey democratic norms more often because they belong to a political party than if they’re truly in a party that’s just a personalistic vehicle that allows them to be almost just by definition a populist?


I would say that it really depends on the party. So, I actually find that the phenomenon of personalism and personalistic parties to be incredibly fascinating, because sometimes you can have a party that is not personalistic, you mentioned the PT and then over time it takes on personalistic characteristics. And sometimes you can have parties that begin as personalistic vehicles, but then over time they actually institutionalize. They become real parties. And the real test is what happens after the leader dies or retires. Usually personalistic parties will die with the leader. There are many examples of this, but every now and then they’ll actually manage to survive the death of the leader.

So if you look at Peronism in Argentina, for example, its personalistic origins are right there in the name. Right? Juan Perón founded the party, but after he died in the 1970s the party continued to exist and thrive and it’s currently in power and it’s far and away the most important party in the country. Now that’s an interesting case because Perón did everything possible to prevent anyone else from challenging his authority. But there are some parties, they’re very rare, but I think that they’re theoretically really interesting, and I discussed two examples in my book on conservative parties are parties where the party does actually have a personalistic component initially. But then those party leaders actually choose to depersonalize their own parties. They decide to kind of step back, to take one for the team, if you will, for the long-term good of their own parties.

So I mentioned this party, the U.D.I., the UDI in Chile, it was completely dominated by this man named Jaime Guzmán, who was one of Pinochet’s most important advisers. He’s to this day totally beloved within the party. But he actually started to become concerned that the party was becoming a vehicle for Guzmánismo, for himself. And so he actually voluntarily stepped down as party president and promoted the rise of another leader who was quite different from him in some crucial ways. Guzmán was eventually assassinated and the party survived his death, which shows that effort that he made to depersonalize it was actually quite successful.


Also shows how difficult it is to build a party, an actual organization, because it comes down to leaders, like Guzmán and also, another leader that you mentioned in the book from El Salvador in the ARENA party which was Roberto D’Aubuisson. You’ve got these two examples where the leaders had to actually forsake some of their power to be able to help strengthen that party. And that was such a contrast to another example that you explained in the book, which was the PAN over in Guatemala.

But before we get too deep into that, the way that you describe that conservative parties are able to build is due to a three-step process that you have in the book. You describe the ingredients for success are party voter linkage, territorial organization, and a source of cohesion. And to be honest, that’s vague enough that that’s true for all political parties. But you describe it for these conservative parties that are authoritarian successors as having party voter linkage and territorial organization through authoritarian inheritance. Can you explain what you mean by authoritarian inheritance and how it establishes party voter linkage and territorial organization?


So, that kind of tripartite framework that you laid out, I can’t take full credit for that. That was something that I developed with my coauthors in a previous work, Steve Levitsky and Brandon van Dyke.

But by party voter linkage this is a term that the political scientist Herbert Kitschelt developed and, you know, it’s a very simple idea, just means that a party needs to have some way of appealing to voters. And so that can be through the party’s program. If you’re a Social Democrat and you want these things, vote for us. That can be through just giving people free stuff.  You don’t really even need an ideology, just vote for us and you’ll get free stuff, that’s called clientelism. Or it can be through the characteristics of the leader. So, you know, you really like, let’s say Trump, or you really like ex-former dictator. You don’t really care what they do. You just kind of believe in this person and you sort of trust them to do the right thing. So that’s called a personalistic linkage.

You need a party voter linkage and for conservative parties that can actually be quite a challenge. Because one of the big axes upon which politics is often fought, you know, left and right, is that the left favors economic redistribution and the right is more skeptical of redistribution and in a context of inequality and virtually all Latin American countries have deep, deep seated inequality, being the party that says actually the economic status quo is basically fine, that’s kind of a losing message. So, what do conservative parties need to do? Well, they need to kind of change the axis upon which politics is fought, if it’s about class again, conservative parties will probably lose. If it’s about things that cut across class like religion or public security, well, those are issues that conservative parties can win on.

So, I mentioned religion. Historically in Latin America, defense of the Catholic church has been a really important cross cutting issue that conservative parties have used to win votes. Rich people and middle-class people and poor people, Catholicism doesn’t know any class boundaries. That has become less effective in recent decades as the population has become less Catholic, rise of Protestantism, the rise of atheism, and also, because as the Catholic Church has often took a pretty leftwing orientation when it came to these economic issues. So, unlike in Europe, Christian democratic parties in Latin America are often pretty left of center. So, that was a problem for conservative parties because they couldn’t really use the Catholic issue anymore. So, what, what could they use?

A big one that many people like Bolsonaro, for example, have used or this party out in El Salvador that you mentioned have used is the idea of what’s known in Spanish as Mano Dura, which means literally hard hand. But it means something like a tough on crime approach, taking an iron fist to the problem of crime. And what that essentially means is locking up people based on just suspicion alone, or maybe because they have the wrong kind of tattoos or we’re fast-tracking people through the criminal justice program, which might mean that they don’t get the proper due process. And the question is if a party promises to do this, will they actually follow through? Is this party making a Mano Dura promise credibly?

Well, one way of kind of demonstrating credibility is to be associated with a regime, a dictatorship in the past that did exactly all of those things. So, suppose that you’re a party that grew out of a dictatorship, that killed all sorts of people, or locked people up, or did not care at all about legal niceties, and then you promise essentially to do the same thing. Well, you can believe that the party will probably do that.

So right now, for example, there’s an election going on in Peru and one of the top two candidates is Keiko Fujimori, who is the daughter of former autocrat, Alberto Fujimori, who in the 1990s did all of the things that I just mentioned and currently he’s in jail for human rights violations. And Keiko is running on an explicitly Mano Dura platform. I was actually just watching some campaign videos of hers recently and she’s just all in on the legacy of her father and all in on this idea that she’s going to take a Mano Dura approach. Will she win? I don’t know. She lost the last two elections, although by just the tiniest of margins, but she’s been running on this platform for a while now and every time she gets 48, 49% of the vote.

So, this term authoritarian inheritance, it just is the idea that authoritarian successor parties, they can inherit resources from the old regime that are helpful for winning under democratic conditions. And one of those might just be a reputation. A reputation in this case for Mano Dura.


The territorial organization part, I think, draws this idea of authoritarian inheritance even closer. You gave an example in the book about the Nationalist Republican Alliance in El Salvador. How in just matter of, was it a few weeks or a few months, was able to organize throughout the entire country and just help organize the other political parties despite having very little time in existence, because they had existed, just not under that name, it was the evolution of the dictatorship into democratic politics.


So, that’s such a great example. So, many of your listeners will have been alive and paying attention to news in the 1980s when there’s a civil war going on in El Salvador. And the phrase you often heard was death squads. Tens of thousands of people were just disappeared or massacred and these kinds of killings were attributed to death squads. And the leader of these death squads, or let’s say the public face at least, was this guy who we’ve mentioned already Major Roberto D’Aubuisson. Now, he later decided to form a party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance, ARENA, which would go on to dominate Salvadorian politics for two decades from the late 1980s onwards. How did he do it? Well, as you rightly mentioned, what was most remarkable about ARENA’s rise is how quickly it was.

So, the party was formed shortly before elections for constituent assembly in 1982 and overnight went from not existing, to campaigning throughout the national territory, and winning about 30% of the vote. And it would never fall below 30% until actually this most recent election. And the way that they did it was by drawing on this massive paramilitary network created by the country’s previous military dictatorship. The Spanish acronym for it was ORDEN, which means order and that stands for the Nationalist democratic organization. And so, this was a formal organization. This was not a shadowy death squad or something. The party members literally had ID cards. They held rallies. They took out ads in the newspapers. And it was massive. In a country that at the time had around 5 million people, ORDEN had approximately a hundred thousand members.

And these were present everywhere. Right down to the tiniest little villages you would have ORDEN members. They would spy on other people in the village. Sometimes they would engage in goon squad activity and roughing people up. And sometimes participated in killings, in massacres. Okay. So, leading up to 1982, D’Aubuisson decides to form a party. And then for some complicated reasons ORDEN in the previous a few years had been dissolved formally, but it continued to exist informally. And he said, ‘That’s going to be the base of my new party.’ And so I spend a lot of time actually in the book trying to kind of put together a detailed account of how this occurred.

But it seems like he essentially appointed former high-level ORDEN leaders to be the high-level leaders of ARENA throughout the country. And you have the party in its formal histories or party leaders in their interviewees just saying, ‘Oh yeah. We went from zero to hero because we built upon this massive paramilitary network that had a hundred thousand members. That was really handy.’ And it became quickly the most organized party in the country. But the point is that it wasn’t actually truly new. It was built upon this massive mobilizing organizational structure that was already in place.


Now, when we add in that third component, the source of cohesion, I think, one of the riddles you’re trying to solve in your book is that conservative parties struggle to offer themselves some reason for their existence, a source of cohesion. Like the Workers Party that I mentioned before, they’ve got this idea of creating this better world. And that’s the reason why the Workers Party was able to have this very ideologically consistent party over years, even when they were losing elections, until they began to win those elections. Conservative parties, on the other hand, if you really are just a party of elites, I can imagine that it becomes a very self-interested group. So, you find that the parties that succeed are the ones that have the sense of counter-revolutionary struggle within them, that they’ve got a mission and a purpose.

And to be honest, I found that most evident in the Chilean example with Jaime Guzmán, where he really draws in a sense of ‘We are on a mission. We have a purpose as a group.


Absolutely. So, I mean, you can have a party that wins a lot of votes, maybe even a party that has some kind of organized presence on the ground. But if the party splits, well, that does not bode well for the future of the party. And so, I talk about a couple of parties that died because they experienced schisms. So, you need some kind of a glue to hold the party together. So, one glue that you mentioned is ideology, right? If people really firmly believe in the mission of that party whether that be communism, let’s say in the case of historical communist parties, or whether that be Christian democracy, in some cases, that can be enough for people to decide to stick with the party through thick and thin.

It’s easy to keep people on board when you’re in power. You get the fruits of being in office. It’s hard to keep a party together when you’re in opposition. So, ideology is one source of cohesion, but another, and it’s not unrelated, but it is a bit different, another even more effective source of cohesion, I would say is, polarization and conflict. The parties that emerged from really intense polarization and often violent conflict. Civil war, for example, or even where you don’t have civil war, some kind of conflict where you might have street fighting or people being assassinated, this is the kind of thing that can really bind a party together.

So you find this on the left. The Workers Party, for example, yes, it had ideology. But it also had the fact that during its early years, it was really repressed. It was formed under military rule and the military authorities were not fans. But you can also have this on the right. And one of the things that I really tried to do in this book is to just try to show how the leaders of this party understand the world and how they understand the histories of their own countries and just make a good faith effort to show that and in their own words.

Now, the way that they understand the world is not always the same as the way that I understand the world. It’s not always the way that probably many of your listeners understand the world. But in the case of Chile, for example, the UDI is an incredibly cohesive party. Always has been, you know. It’s survived the assassination of its beloved leader, Jaime Guzmán. It survived being in the opposition for a really long time. And the way that they understand Chilean history is really different than what you normally hear. So for them, in the 1970s Chile was basically in civil war and there was no chance of democracy surviving.

The only option was so going to be a Marxist dictatorship, a second Cuba or is it going to be a patriotic military regime. And for them it was a no brainer. Do you prefer it to be a second Cuba or a patriotic military regime? They preferred the latter and they participated enthusiastically in the military regime, which they believe was saving the country. Now, along the way, they believe that they suffered persecution actually. So, when they’re out doing organization building work, for example, they believe that they were being spied on and potentially would be the victims of violence of subterranean armed left groups. And they weren’t wrong.

Actually, they had one of their leaders who was organizing the slums, he was a man named Simón Yévenes. He was assassinated during the 1980s. And they described him as the first martyr of the UDI. And that word martyrdom, I mean, if you really think about it, this history of martyrs in Christianity, right? It, probably helped the religion to grow in a way. If people are willing to give their lives for, their beliefs that really says something. And in both the UDI and this party ARENA in El Salvador, they really view their history as one of victimization, one of struggle and even martyrdom. ARENA had multiple leaders assassinated.

Again, that version of history that I just told you, that’s not necessarily my view. But I do actually believe that that is their sincere belief and it makes for a really compelling founding myth if you will. And I think that founding myth has helped to hold both parties together right up until the present day.


Now, parties in Latin America have obviously evolved over time. And a lot of these parties are not that old yet. We’re talking about a couple of decades. I want to ask you about Argentina and kind of throw you a curve ball. Argentina is dominated by the parties of Juan Perón, like his legacies. Juan Perón, he comes out of a military dictatorship as a military officer. He’s a big fan of fascism at first and kind of comes across as though he’s coming from the right, but tries to build support from workers and the poorer classes that would normally be supporting a party of the left. Why did that not become an authoritarian successor party? Why was the military afraid of Peronism and didn’t allow that to become that party of the right against the radicals, which at the time was a party of the left?


I actually think Peronism qualifies as an authoritarian successor party. So how did Perón’s political career start? Well, as you mentioned, he was a high-level official in a military regime. Actually, a military regime that openly sympathized with the Axis powers and it was in power from 1943 until 1946. Many people know that Perón was the minister of social welfare. That sounds nice. And so maybe you can give him a pass because, you know, it was a military regime, but he was implementing policies for the workers. He was also the vice president of that Axis sympathizing military regime and the minister of war. So he was as high-level an official in this pretty nasty military dictatorship as you could possibly be. But he did do a lot of good things for the workers and earned a lot of popular support in the process.

And when he eventually formed his party, he won fair and square. So, this is not a counterexample. This is just a pretty clear example in my mind, actually of this general phenomenon of authoritarian successor parties at work. Then after he was elected, again, fairly elected, democratically elected. He implemented a less than democratic regime. What political scientists sometimes call a competitive authoritarian regime. Because this party was so dominated by Perón though, it’s a bit hard to understand its longer-term trajectory without just looking at Perón himself.

So, you asked why didn’t it become a conservative party? Well, maybe if her own had gone all in on the conservative thing, it could have done that. Why didn’t it just become a normal labor party? His first party was actually called the labor party and then he immediately dissolved it and created a new party called the Peronist Party. And now it’s called the Justicialist party. Basically, it seems that Perón didn’t want to give up power and ideologically, I think, he was all over the map. And that kind of got written into the DNA of the party, but I actually do think Peronism was an authoritarian successor party.


So, key to your idea then is that the conservative parties that become authoritarian successor parties, they really need to buy into the idea of democracy.


I don’t think they need to buy into the idea of democracy. I just think that they need to contest democratic elections. They have to actually participate in a democratic regime. They can’t benefit from some tilted playing field. But do they believe in democracy in their heart of hearts? I’d say it varies a great deal.


So, how do we expect these parties to evolve over time?  Peronism evolved into what is now Kirchnerism, which is on the extreme far left. I just imagine that these parties don’t stay static. Is it frequent for them to eventually lose the essence of what made them a viable, conservative authoritarian successor party to begin with, that spot for the conservative elites to support? Do they sometimes lose that perch and then undermine their role within a democratic regime?


To be honest, I don’t know. This is something I would really like to see, you know, if there are any bright grad students out there listening, I would really love to see more research on. Most of the parties that I have focused on, as you rightly note, are fairly new, you know, formed in the past generation, maybe a bit more. So formed during the third wave of democratization. To really answer this question effectively, I think we’d have to go back in time and look at earlier instances, parties that were formed perhaps during the second wave of democratization or even go further back and look at the first wave of democratization.

Having said that, just to use the examples that I know well from the past few decades. So, this party in El Salvador, ARENA, it has evolved in some significant ways. This was actually a party on the extreme, right. It was a pretty scary outfit in its early years. You know, just talking openly about killing hundreds of thousands of people using napalm. D’Aubuisson, I found this one interview where he just made this incredibly vulgar joke about rape. And just, it was a really pretty extreme party actually. D’Aubuisson used to cut watermelons open with a machete to show what he would do to the Christian Democrats, if he came into power. Because the idea was that they were green on the outside, that was their official color, but red on the inside because they were actually secret communists. So a pretty extreme party.

But over time it actually did evolve. When it came to its ideology today, I feel pretty comfortable saying that ARENA is just a run of the mill conservative party. It’s a normal center-right party that you could recognize in pretty much any country. They like the free market and they’re pretty conservative when it comes to social issues, things like abortion or same-sex marriage. So, it really has evolved a lot in terms of its ideology, but it has not given up its attachment to the pre-democratic old days. D’Aubuisson in particular who, and by the way, the reason why this is an authoritarian successor parties, because D’Aubuisson used to hold a high-level position in the country’s security apparatus. He remains the revered founder of the party.

If you go into the party’s headquarters in San Salvador, there’s a huge statue of D’Aubuisson. They routinely take out advertisements on the anniversary of his death. He’s referred to in party literature as their maximum founder. Not in the most recent presidential election, but the one before that, I went to the party’s Congress where they nominated their leader. And there’s a huge banner saying, ‘Thank you, Major D’Aubuisson.’ This is a man who the former U.S. ambassador described as a pathological killer. And well into the 2010s, they’re putting up a giant banner saying thank you Major D’Aubuisson. So, on that front, it actually hasn’t evolved that much, but I would love to see more research done on this subject to see how these parties evolve, if at all.


Now, to take that idea though to something that’s much more recent. So, a lot of established parties around the world right now have really struggled, especially in the past 10 years. We see it within Europe. We see it in the United States with Republican party primary with a lot of the established candidates struggling and we’ve seen it very much so within Latin America, where a lot of the established parties, have struggled in recent years.

We’ve seen new parties rise and end up winning elections. El Salvador, you have Bukele winning the presidency and ARENA hasn’t won the presidency in I think three successive elections after winning four or five in a row. And within this political environment where people are very, very frustrated with establishment parties, do these authoritarian successor parties from the former dictatorships in Latin America, do they risk the possibility of displacement in this current political environment?


So, parties have kind of been in crisis in a number of Latin American countries for some time. Peru, for example, its entire party system collapsed in the 1990s. Bolivia’s party system collapsed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. El Salvador’s party system seems like it might be in the process of collapsing. So, since the civil war, there have been two big parties in the country, ARENA on the right and this party called the FMLN, which grew from the former guerillas on the left. But now you have the rise of Bukele, a very personalistic leader, and yeah, it seems like the other parties in the country might be on the way on the way out now.

What are the implications for authoritarian successor parties? They’re not immune from the broader process of disintegration and if there is a party system collapse in a country now, they’re often big structural reasons underlying that and an authoritarian successor party like ARENA is probably not going to be entirely immune from that process. Having said that it did actually do better than the FMLN, it’s historic great rivalry, in the last election. In the legislative vote, I think it won something like maybe 12%. Not great, much worse than it did historically, but it’s still kind of kicking now.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if Bukele really seems like he’s trying to take a battering ram to the entire political system, the party system included. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this did actually become a case of a full-scale party system collapse over the next decade or so. But yeah, authoritarian successor parties are not immune to the broader party system dynamics.


And let me emphasize that it’s not necessarily just a personalistic populist leader that could be undermining the party system. We see it right now in Chile where you have massive protests going on. People are just demanding change within that political environment. And the UDI is actually in power right now. And they’re probably going to take a battering in the polls during the next election.


Maybe, maybe not. Actually, the left seems to be more divided actually then than the right at the moment in Chile. You’re right that the country’s party system does seem to be in crisis, but I wouldn’t be surprised actually, in this particular case, if the UDI came out looking pretty good relative to two other parties. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie The Life of Brian before, but there’s this famous scene where the it’s the People’s Front of Judea and the only thing they hate worse than the Romans are the Judean People’s Front. Right?

There’s a long history of leftist parties and movements splitting. Something like that seems to be going on in Chile at the moment. The right will probably also be affected, but in the upcoming constitutional assembly elections actually the right might end up being a more cohesive force than the center or the left, which I think is going to be quite atomized.


Well, that’ll be fascinating to track. Of course, the other thing I wanted to bring up too, though, is that the goal is not to maintain authoritarian successor parties because they’re authoritarian successor parties. The idea is it’s difficult to form these rightwing conservative parties that represent a significant portion of the population and we’ve had difficulties in the past being able to form these parties that were able to contest in democratic elections which resulted in military dictatorships in the past.

So, your research indicates a positive outcome of military dictatorship that is we can create these viable conservative parties as we move away from military dictatorships, but it also has a bleak implication in it, if we think that this is the best route to establish these conservative parties. Because we don’t want to think, ‘Gosh, we’re having a hard time in democracy. What we really need to revitalize democracy is a military dictatorship.’ That’s not a positive route to go. So, do you see new pathways for organic conservative parties to form, particularly in Latin America, that are on the horizon today?


Yeah. So, to bring the interview full circle, we started out talking about why conservative parties are actually really important for democratic stability. And so, I believe that’s true. I think that there’s really strong evidence for that you want there to be some kind of a party that is able to peacefully represent the interests of rich people. How do we get there? Well, it turns out for the past two decades in Latin America, weirdly, maybe disturbingly, the way that we get there is often through an authoritarian successor party. So, you have a party emerged from a dictatorship, in the cases that I focus on in my book, that are on the right side of the ideological spectrum. Those are the ones that did better. The ones with more democratic origins did worse.

So, the really important question, I think this is what you’re getting at is, is that it? Is there no other way to build a strong conservative party? The truth is that for the period that I look at here 1978 until 2010. There are no examples of a truly enduring, conservative party emerging with democratic origins. You know, you have parties or movements that are candidates who appear and might do well in an election or two, but then they go under. There haven’t been any enduring conservative parties to emerge in Latin America of a truly democratic origin with one possible exception. And it’s a possible exception because we can’t predict the future. But the one possible exception that I see is Republican Proposal or the PRO in Argentina. That’s Mauricio Macri’s party that was formed in 2005. And of course, Macri went on to win the presidency.

Will the PRO stand the test of time? I don’t know. But it sure seems like it’s got a decent shot of doing so. I would say that it is, of conservative parties in the region, you know, newish, conservative parties of truly democratic origin, and it is of democratic origin, it is the one that has the best shot of making it. So, we have to wait and see, but if it does eventually put down roots, the reason I think is that it has followed a number of alternative strategies. So, one is that it decided to go for subnational office before going for national office. So, Macri, he became the mayor of the city of Buenos Aires and then from there the party slowly moved outwards. That was really smart.

Another is that it made a coalition with the country’s second most important party. So, Peronism most important party, second most important party, the Radicals. The PRO didn’t have much of a presence outside of the Capitol, but the Radicals did. And so, it formed a coalition with a serious party, with a serious organization that was also really smart. And then finally Macri comes from one of the country’s most important business families. And so, he was able to draw on the business resources of his family. Now, nobody really knows whether the coalition that I mentioned will survive. Will the radicals be happy to play second fiddle to the PRO forever? That one could go either way. Right? Who can say? If the radicals did leave would the PRO be as successful as it has been in the last few election cycles? Probably not.

So, I would say that its outcome looks pretty good, but it’s uncertain. But if it does eventually make it, this could actually help to chart the path for a new peaceful way of building conservative parties in Latin America. Go for subnational office first. Build a coalition, try to maintain that coalition. And then if you can try to draw on business resources which is important for conservative parties in most of the world. But in Latin America, business has sometimes been a bit aloof when it comes to supporting conservative parties. The PRO managed to do all three of those things and its future looks pretty good. And so that could actually be a new democratic model for conservative party building in the region.


Well, thank you so much, James. I’m so impressed with the research that you’ve done. I know that you’re building on a lot of work that a lot of other scholars are doing. I mean, I’m aware that you’re not the first one to talk about some of these concepts, but I feel like you put it together in very novel ways. You draw in a lot of ideas and put a lot of this stuff together and you do it within such a fascinating context of Latin America. It’s just a joy to read your work. Thank you.


Well, thank you Justin. I really appreciate it and I really enjoyed being on your podcast.

Key Links

Conservative Party-Building in Latin America: Authoritarian Inheritance and Counterrevolutionary Struggle by James Loxton

Authoritarian Successor Parties” by James Loxton in Journal of Democracy, July 2015

Visit James at www.jamesloxton.net

Related Content

Bryn Rosenfeld on Middle Class Support for Dictators in Autocratic Regimes

Amy Erica Smith on Politics and Religion in Brazil

More from the Podcast

More Information

Democracy Group

Apes of the State created all Music

Democracy Matters Podcast

Email the show at democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

Follow me on Twitter @DemParadox

100 Books on Democracy

18 thoughts on “James Loxton Explains Why Authoritarian Successor Parties Succeed in Democracies

Add yours

  1. My name is Guillermo Mendez, I came to the US from Argentina 18 years ago.
    First I would like to say that I am a fan of this podcast, enjoy it very much.
    After listening to the episode with James Loxton I must say that I am impressed by James knowledge of latinamerican politics. It is a topic I consider impossible to comprehend.
    There is a factor though that can’t be ignored and wasn’t mentioned during the podcast. This factor is the involvement of the USA and URSS. Both countries actively supported, helped and organized coups during the 20th century to bring to power the worst, bloodiest dictatorships. They shaped the region politically. Democracy, ideology and people’s wellbeing were never in mind, only greed and economic profit for the plutocracy and oligarchy governing both the USA and Russia.
    In the 80s, probably after Argentina gave the UK a headache, they realized democracy in the region would be better than military juntas and most countries somehow embraced democracy.
    With that said, I still think that people have the government they deserve and each country is responsible for their own destiny and situation. I just wanted to bring up the fact that foreign powers contribute to reshape governments in latinamerica fueling or fueled by corruption.

    Thank you so much for bringing James to the podcast and caring about Democracy.


    1. You raise a fair point. For example, the US involvement in Chile is extensively documented. A good book to learn more is David Shimer’s Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference. Of course, American involvement explains why some military dictatorships came to power. It does not explain why parties like the UDI and ARENA continued to have support after democratization. Obviously my conversation with James is not meant to explain the entirety of Latin American politics. But I hope it offers one more piece to a very complex puzzle. Thank you so much for listening and for your thoughtful comment.

Leave a Reply

Up ↑