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Decision Making in Political Systems: Veto Players in Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, Multicameralism and Multipartyism

  • George Tsebelis


The article compares different political systems with respect to one property: their capacity to produce policy change. I define the basic concept of the article, the ‘veto player’: veto players are individual or collective actors whose agreement (by majority rule for collective actors) is required for a change of the status quo. Two categories of veto players are identified in the article: institutional and partisan. Institutional veto players (president, chambers) exist in presidential systems while partisan veto players (parties) exist at least in parliamentary systems. Westminster systems, dominant party systems and single-party minority governments have only one veto player, while coalitions in parliamentary systems, presidential or federal systems have multiple veto players. The potential for policy change decreases with the number of veto players, the lack of congruence (dissimilarity of policy positions among veto players) and the cohesion (similarity of policy positions among the constituent units of each veto player) of these players. The veto player framework produces results different from existing theories in comparative politics, but congruent with existing empirical studies. In addition, it permits comparisons across different political and party systems. Finally, the veto player framework enables predictions about government instability (in parliamentary systems) or regime instability (in presidential systems); these predictions are supported by available evidence.



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1 Linz, Juan J., ‘The Perils of Presidentialism’, Journal of Democracy, 1 (1990), 5169.

2 Horowitz, Donald L., ‘Comparing Democratic Systems’, Journal of Democracy, 1 (1990), 73–9.

3 Shugart, Matthew Soberg and Carey, John M., Presidents and Assemblies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

4 Lijphart, Arend, Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-one Countries (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Dniversity Press, 1984).

5 See Riker, William H., ‘The Justification of Bicameralism’, International Political Science Review, 13 (1992), 101–16, and ‘The Merits of Bicameralism’, International Review of Law and Economics, 12 (1992), 166–8; Hammond, Thomas H. and Miller, Gary J., ‘The Core of the Constitution’, American Political Science Review, 81 (1987), 1155–74; Frickey, Philip P., ‘Constitutional Structure, Public Choice, and Public Law’, International Review of Law and Economics, 12 (1992), 163–5; and Levmore, Saul, ‘Bicameralism: When Are Two Decisions Better than One?’, International Review of Law and Economics, 12 (1992), 145–62.

6 Mastias, Jean and Grangé, Jean, Les Secondes Chambres du parlement en Europe occidentale (Paris: Economica, 1987). For a discussion of the ‘authority’ approach to bicameralism as well as for an approach where the influence of the Senate is attributed to institutional factors, see Money, Jeannette and Tsebelis, George, ‘Cicero's Puzzle: Upper House Power in Comparative Perspective’, International Political Science Review, 13 (1992), 2543.

7 Riker, , ‘The Justification of Bicameralism’, and The Merits of Bicameralism'.

8 Strong Condorcet winner is an alternative that wins against all others in both chambers. See Levmore, , ‘Bicameralism’.

9 Shugart, and Carey, , Presidents and Assemblies, p. 44.

10 Shugart, and Carey, , Presidents and Assemblies, p. 29.

11 Lijphart, , Democracies.

12 Huber, John D. and Powell, G. Bingham, ‘Congruence between Citizens and Policymakers in two Visions of Liberal Democracy’, World Politics, forthcoming.

13 The most famous authors that used this approach are Bagehot, Walter, The English Constitution (London: Chapman and Hall, 1867); and Wilson, Woodrow, Congressional Government (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973 (first edn, 1885)). For a recent article using the United Kingdom and the United States as representatives of parliamentary and presidential systems, see Moe, Terry M. and Caldwell, Michael, ‘The Institutional Foundations of Democratic Government: A Comparison of Presidential and Parliamentary Systems’, Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, 150 (1994), 171–95.

14 Linz, , ‘The Perils of Presidentialism’.

15 Horowitz, , ‘Comparing Democratic Systems’.

16 See Lijphart, , Democracies; Powell, G. Bingham, Contemporary Democracies: Participation, Stability and Violence (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982); Strom, Kaare, Minority Government and Majority Rule (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Shugart, and Carey, , Presidents and Assemblies.

17 For examples of bias introduced by case selection on the dependent variable, see Geddes, Barbara, ‘How the Cases You Choose Affect the Answers You Get: Selection Bias in Comparative Politics’, Political Analysis, 2 (1990), 131–49. However, even the increase of sample size does not correct for a bias due to the selection of existing cases from a population of possible cases with different characteristics (see Przeworski, Adam and Limongi, Fernando, ‘Selection, Counterfactual and Comparisons’ (mimeo, University of Chicago); and for an empirical example along these lines see Tsebelis, George, ‘The Power of the European Parliament as a Conditional Agenda Setter’, in D. Ruloff and G. Schneider, eds, Towards a New Europe: Stops and Starts in European Integration (New York: Praeger, forthcoming).

18 Key, V. O. Jr, Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups, 5th edn (New York: Crowell, 1964), p. 688.

19 Bagehot, , The English Constitution.

20 Katzenstein, Peter J., Small States in World Markets: Industrial Policy in Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985); and Rogowski, Ronald, ‘Trade and the Variety of Democratic Institutions’, International Organization, 41 (1987), 203–23.

21 Grilli, Vittorio, Masciandaro, Donato and Tabellini, Guido, ‘Political and Monetary Institutions and Public Financial Policies in the Industrial Countries’, Economic Policy, 13 (1991), 341–92.

22 Tiebout, Charles, ‘A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures’, Journal of Political Economy, 64 (1956), 416–24; and Weingast, Barry, ‘Federalism and the Political Commitment to Sustain Markets’ (mimeo, Hoover Institution, 1993).

23 Weaver, R. Kent and Rockman, Bert, Do Institutions Matter? Goverment Capabilities in the US and Abroad (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1993), p. 6.

24 Kydland, Finn E. and Prescott, Edward C., ‘Rules Rather than Discretion: The Inconsistency of Optimal Plans’, Journal of Political Economy, 85 (1977), 473–91.

25 Weingast, Barry, ‘Economic Role of Political Institutions’ (mimeo, Hoover Institution, 1993).

26 A more realistic representation would have the legislator care whether a budget is above or below his own point, as well as about other factors. While such complications would affect the simplicity of the presentation of the argument they would not affect its logic. I will proceed with the simplest expositional convention of ‘Euclidean preferences’, that is, circular indifference curves.

27 The yolk is defined as the smallest sphere that intersects all median hyperplanes. Hyperplanes are planes in more than two dimensions. A median hyperplane is a hyperplane that divides the individual voters into three groups so that those voters on the hyperplane or on one side of it can form a majority, as can those on it or on the other side of it. For a more complete discussion, see Ferejohn, John A., McKelvey, Richard D. and Packell, Edward W., ‘Limiting Distributions for Continuous State Markov Voting Models’, Social Choice and Welfare, 1 (1984), 4567. For a non-technical discussion of the yolk and the calculation of winsets, see Miller, Nicholas R., Grofman, Bernard and Feld, Scott L., ‘The Geometry of Majority Rule’, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 4 (1989), 379406.

28 Koehler, D. H., ‘The Size of the Yolk: Computations for Odd and Even-Numbered Committees’, Social Choice and Welfare, 7 (1990), 231–45.

29 In fact, one can locate the winset of the status quo in a smaller area, but while such an increase in precision would greatly complicate the exposition it would not alter the results reported here. For such an example, see Tsebelis, George, ‘The Core, the Uncovered Set and Conference Committees in Bicameral Legislatures’ (paper presented at Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, 1993).

30 See Lijphart, , Democracies; Riker, , ‘The Merits of Bicameralism’; and Weaver, and Rockman, , Do Institutions Matter?

31 Montesquieu, , The Spirit of the Laws, Cohler, A. M., Miller, B. C., and Stone, H. S., trans. and eds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), part 2, bk. 11, chap. 6 (emphasis added).

32 Hamilton, Alexander, Jay, John and Madison, James, The Federalist (any edition: emphasis added).

33 Here is how Maor reports the position of a leader of the liberal party, member of the government coalition in Denmark: ‘We could stop everything we did not like. That is a problem with a coalition government between two parties of very different principles. If you cannot reach a compromise, then such a government has to stay away from legislation in such areas.’ See Maor, Moshe, ‘Intra-Party Conflict and Coalitional Behavior in Denmark and Norway: The Case of “Highly Institutionalized” Parties’, Scandinavian Political Studies, 15 (1992), 99116.

34 The government introduced open votes in 1988 and did away with the problem.

35 Strom, , Minority Government and Majority Rule, p. 61.

36 Laver, Michael J. and Schofield, Norman, Multiparty Government: The Politics of Coalition in Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

37 Laver, and Schofield, , Multiparty Government; and Strom, , Minority Government and Majority Rule. This idea originated with Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1957).

38 For a systematic discussion of positional and institutional advantages of governments in parliamentary democracies, see Tsebelis, George, ‘Veto Players and Law Production in Parliamentary Democracies’ in Doering, Herber, ed. Parliaments and Majority Rule in Western Europe (New York: St Martin's Press, forthcoming).

39 Laver, and Schofield, , Multiparty Government, p. 70.

40 See Huber, John D., ‘Restrictive Legislative Procedures in France and the US’, American Political Science Review, 86 (1992), 675–87; and Tsebelis, George, Nested Games (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), chap. 7.

41 Quoted in Maor, , ‘Intra-Party Conflict and Coalitional Behavior in Denmark and Norway’, p. 108.

42 What these numbers do not specify, however, is how many amendments were made to the bills or, how many times the government may have altered the bill in anticipation of amendments. For data see Union, Inter-Parliamentary, Parliaments of the World, 2nd edn (Aldershot, Surrey: Gower, 1986), Table 29.

43 Lijphart calls these bicameral legislatures asymmetric. See Lijphart, , Democracies, pp. 95100.

44 Money, and Tsebelis, , ‘Cicero's Puzzle’.

45 With the exception of the Portuguese Constitution of 1976, which was revised on this and other points in 1982. See Shugart, and Carey, , Presidents and Assemblies, p. 155.

46 For a discussion of veto override, see Hammond, and Miller, , ‘The Core of the Constitution’. The essence of the argument is that if players House (H), Senate (S), and President (P) have veto powers but P's veto can be overruled, then the final outcome can be not only in the intersection of the winsets of H, S, and P, but also in some part of the intersection of the winsets of H and S which does not belong to the winset of P.

47 Duverger, Maurice, ‘A New Political System Model: Semi-Presidential Government’, European Journal of Political Research, 8 (1980), 165–87.

48 In fact the president of the Weimar Republic had an indirect or conditional veto: he could submit legislation he did not like to a referendum.

49 See Shugart, and Carey, , Presidents and Assemblies.

50 See Ames, Barry, Political Survival in Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

51 See Stone, Alec, The Birth of Judicial Politics in France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

52 Tsebelis, , Nested Games, chap. 6.

53 I am focusing here on the internal organization of the Federal Reserve, not on its independence. Several countries have created independent central banks to isolate them from political pressures and assure independence of decisions from pressures of interest groups or the government.

54 Luebbert, Gregory, Comparative Democracy: Policy Making and Governing Coalitions in Europe and Israel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

55 Money, and Tsebelis, , ‘Cicero's Puzzle’.

56 And, as we shall see below, are restricted to countries with single-member plurality electoral systems.

57 Downs, A., An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), chaps 4 and 8.

58 Sartori, Giovanni, Parties and Party Systems (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

59 Cox, Gary W., ‘Electoral Equilibrium under Alternative Voting Institutions’, Journal of Political Science, 31 (1987), 82108.

60 Rogowski, , ‘Trade and the Variety of Democratic Institutions’.

61 For examples, see Money, and Tsebelis, , ‘Cicero's Puzzle’, Tables 1 and 2.

62 For two interesting cases in which centrist leaders were able to put together a compromise only to see it break down when submitted to their parties, see Tsebelis, , Nested Games, chap. 6; and Strom, Kaare, ‘The Presthus Debacle: Interparty Politics and Bargaining Failure in Norway’, in American Political Science Review, 88 (1994), 112–27.

63 Cain, Bruce, Ferejohn, John and Fiorina, Morris P., The Personal Vote (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987).

64 Shugart, and Carey, , Presidents and Assemblies.

65 Mainwaring, Scott, ‘Presidentialism in Latin America: A Review Essay’, Latin American Research Review, 25 (1989), 157–79; and ‘Politicians, Parties and Electoral Systems: Brazil in Comparative Perspective’, Comparative Politics, 23 (1991), 2143.

66 Mershon, Carol, ‘Expectations and Informal Rules in Coalition Formation’, Comparative Political Studies, forthcoming.

67 Lange, Peter and Regini, Marino, State, Market and Social Regulation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

68 I do not think I need to remind the reader that cetera are almost never pares.

69 Lijphart, Arend, ed., Parliamentary vs. Presidential Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 6.

70 This discussion ignores the possible complications of veto-override by legislatures, but then again, there is nothing unique about the presidential veto. In Japan the lower house can overrule the upper by a two-thirds majority; similarly in Germany a decision of the Bundesrat by a two-thirds majority requires a two-thirds majority in the Bundestag to be overturned.

71 Linz, , ‘The Perils of Presidentialism’.

72 Laver, Michael J. and Shepsle, Kenneth A., ‘Coalitions and Cabinet Government’, American Political Science Review, 84 (1990), 873–90.

73 Browne, Eric and Franklin, Mark, ‘Aspects of Coalition Payoffs in European Parliamentary Democracies’, American Political Science Review, 67 (1973), 453–69, p. 445.

74 Unless, of course, their ideal point is included in the intersection of the winsets of the status quo.

75 For a similar position, see Strom, , Minority Government and Majority Rule; for a different position, see Laver, and Shepsle, , ‘Coalitions and Cabinet Governments’, who argue that minority governments are like presidential regimes because they separate legislative from executive power. According to the Laver and Shepsle's point of view, Sweden and Norway should be classified with the United States.

76 Feigenbaum, Harvey, Samuels, Richard and Weaver, R. Kent, ‘Innovation, Coordination, and Implementation in Energy Policy’, in Weaver, and Rockman, , Do Institutions Matter?, pp. 42109.

77 Feigenbaum, et al. , ‘Innovation, Coordination, and Implementation’, p. 99.

78 Eneloe, Cynthia, The Politics of Pollution in a Comparative Perspective: Ecology and Power in Four Nations (New York: D. McKay, 1975), p. 326.

79 Schick, Allen, ‘Governments versus Budget Deficits’, in Weaver, and Rockman, , Do Institutions Matter?, pp. 187236.

80 Schick, , ‘Governments versus Budget Deficits’, p. 217.

81 Schick, , ‘Governments versus Budget Deficits’, p. 228–9.

82 Pierson, Paul D. and Weaver, R. Kent, ‘Imposing Losses in Pension Policy’, in Weaver, and Rockman, , Do Institutions Matter?, pp. 100–50.

83 Garrett uses fear of electoral defeat as his major explanatory variable when he compares the structural changes introduced in Sweden in 1930s and in Britain in the 1980s. See Garrett, Geoffrey, ‘The Politics of Structural Change: Swedish Social Democracy and Thatcherism in Comparative Perspective’, Comparative Political Studies, 25 (1993), 521–47.

84 Weaver, and Rockman, , Do Institutions Matter?

85 Weaver, and Rockman, , Do Institutions Matter?, p. 448.

86 Weaver, and Rockman, , Do Institutions Matter?, p. 450.

87 Immergut, Ellen M., Health Politics: Interests and Institutions in Western Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

88 In Italy committees can act either in order to introduce legislation on the floor of a house or instead of a house. Kreppel used the number of laws that were approved by the floor of a house instead of by committees as a proxy for significance of legislation. See Kreppel, Amie, ‘The Effect of Veto Players and Coalition Stability on Legislative Output in Italy’ (mimeo, UCLA, 1993).

89 Mayhew, David, Divided We Govern (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991).

90 Jones, David R., ‘Policy Stability in the United States: Divided Government or Cohesion in Congress?’ (mimeo UCLA, 1993).

91 Warwick, Paul, ‘Ideological Diversity and Government Survival in Western European Parliamentary Democracies’, Comparative Political Studies, 24 (1992), 332–61.

92 Shugart, and Carey, , Presidents and Assemblies, pp. 154–8.

93 See Hammond, Thomas H. and Knott, Jack H., ‘Presidential Power, Congressional Dominance, and Bureaucratic Autonomy in a Model of Multi-Institutional Policy Making’ (paper presented at Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, 1993). This expectation is consistent with Lohmann's finding that in periods of divided government in Germany the Bundesbank is more independent (see Lohmann, Susanne, ‘Federalism and Central Bank Autonomy: The Politics of German Monetary Policy, 1960–89’ (mimeo, UCLA, 1993)).

94 Notable differences between the Hammond and Knott model and my approach is that they are interested in the special case when the winset of the status quo is empty (while I am interested in the size of the winset), and they use two dimensions (that can be generalized up to four; see Tsebelis, , ‘The Core, the Uncovered Set and Conference Committees in Bicameral Legislatures’), while my approach holds for any number of dimensions.

95 See Moe, Terry M., ‘Political Institutions: The Neglected Side of the Story’, Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, 6 (1993), 213–53, and Moe, Terry M. and Caldwell, Michael, ‘The Institutional Foundations of Democratic Government’.

96 One variable that is missing from this account, and should be included in a comparative study of courts, is who has standing in front of the court. For example, the condition for the increase of importance of the Constitutional Court in France was the introduction of the reform (at the time it was called ‘reformette’ because of lack of understanding of its significance) that the Court could be asked to deliberate by sixty Members of Parliament.

97 For an example of interaction between two players one of which has the power to propose and the other to accept, see Tsebelis, , ‘The Power of the European Parliament as a Conditional Agenda Setter’.

* Department of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles. I would like to thank the Hoover Institution for financial support. While writing this article I profited from comments from Jeff Frieden, Geoff Garrett, Miriam Golden, Sada Kawato, Peter Lange, Michael Laver, Terry Moe, Bjom Eric Rasch, Ron Rogowski, Kaare Strom, Sidney Tarrow and Michael Wallerstein. I also thank Albert Weale and two anonymous referees for their suggestions.

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Decision Making in Political Systems: Veto Players in Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, Multicameralism and Multipartyism

  • George Tsebelis


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