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Five Ways of Institutionalizing Political Opposition: Lessons from the Advanced Democracies*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2014


Legitimate political opposition constitutes a key component of any form of liberal democracy, which has, however, received surprisingly scant attention in the more recent political science literature. In an attempt to revitalize the debate about the various forms of political opposition, this paper starts with distinguishing five different ways or models of institutionalizing political opposition in liberal democratic systems. It goes on to look at how these different models have worked in the constitutional practice of selected western democracies. In the second part of this article, the focus is on the possible lessons that constitution-makers in democratizing countries could draw from this experience. Whereas there is no best model of opposition in general, some models would seem to be better suited to meet the particular needs of new democracies than others.

Copyright © The Author(s) 2004.

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I would like to thank Arend Lijphart for encouraging me to present my thoughts, some of which have first been developed elsewhere, to a wider English-language readership, and Tim Büthe and Wilfried Swenden for their valuable comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Thanks are also due to the two anonymous referees and the editors of this journal for their helpful suggestions. The usual disclaimer applies.


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9 The volume by Kolinsky (ed.), Opposition in Western Europe, op. cit., offered in its section ‘concepts of opposition’ assessments by three heavyweights of West European comparative politics (Klaus von Beyme, Peter Pulzer, and Gordon Smith). However, the focus of these chapters remained almost exclusively confined to highlighting the more recent empirical developments until the mid-1980s. A certain appreciation of the legitimate democratic role of social movements is the only issue raised in these chapters that could possibly qualify as some kind of ‘conceptual’ innovation.

10 Robert A. Dahl, ‘Some Explanations’, in R. Dahl (ed.), Political Oppositions in Western Democracies, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1966, pp. 348–52.

11 Robert A. Dahl, ‘Epilogue’, in Dahl (ed.), Political Oppositions in Western Democracies, op. cit., pp. 387–8.

12 S. A. Foord, His Majesty's Opposition 1714–1830, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1964.

13 Allen Potter, ‘Great Britain: Opposition with a Capital “O” ’, in Dahl (ed.), Political Oppositions in Western Democracies, op. cit., pp. 3–33.

14 R. M. Punnett, Front-Bench Opposition. The Role of the Leader of the Opposition, the Shadow Cabinet and Shadow Government in British Politics, London, Heinemann, 1973.

15 Anthony H. Birch, The British System of Government, 8th edn, London and Boston, Unwin Hyman, 1991, p. 131.

16 Philip Norton, ‘Old Institution, New Institutionalism? Parliament and Government in the UK’, in Philip Norton (ed.), Parliaments and Governments in Western Europe, London, Frank Cass, 1998, pp. 16–43.

17 Dennis Van Mechelen and Richard Rose, Patterns of Parliamentary Legislation, Aldershot, Gower, 1986, pp. 59–60, found that during the first four post-war decades of British politics no less than three-quarters of parliamentary bills were passed without the explicit opposition of the non-governing parties in the House of Commons.

18 For instance, observers have pointed to the negative effects that the institutional arrangements in place may have on the credibility of opposition politicians who may feel virtually forced to oppose the government due to the system's pressure ‘to play by the rules’, even when they consider a given policy proposal worthy of being supported. The inherent dangers of radically simplifying issues for the sake of competition, and the potential decay of constructive political thinking are other aspects of the British model that have drawn the attention of critics. Compared to earlier decades these problems have even intensified, as there are now so many issues that cannot properly be integrated into the traditional logic of two-party politics. See Johnson, Nevil, ‘Opposition in the British Political System’, Government and Opposition, 32: 4 (1997), pp. 509–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 Richard Rose and Phillip L. Davies, Inheritance in Public Policy. Change without Choice in Britain, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1994.

20 These include Britain, among other countries with a significantly more impressive record of one-party rule, such as Japan in particular. See Helen Margetts and Gareth Smyth (eds), Turning Japanese? Britain with a Permanent Party of Government, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1994.

21 Anthony King, ‘The Implications of One-Party Government’, in Anthony King (ed.), Britain at the Polls 1992, Chatham, Chatham House, 1993, pp. 223–48.

22 The primary example remains the 1983–87 parliament, in which the ‘Opposition’ (Labour) was just 2.2 percentage points ahead of the second largest opposition party (the Alliance) – a distribution of the vote that was effectively disguised at the parliamentary level due to the strong distortional effects of the British electoral system.

23 Arguably the most famous case in point, to be found in another established western democracy, relates to the spectacular 1993 Canadian general election. Then, the role of the official ‘Opposition’ fell into the hands of the Bloc Québecois, a separatist newcomer party, which received fewer votes than two of the three other opposition parties. See Erickson, Lynda, ‘The October 1993 Election and the Canadian Party System’, Party Politics, 1: 1 (1995), pp. 133–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 In a 1974 judgment the German Federal Constitutional Court explicitly dismissed the idea of referring to the Bundesrat as the second chamber of a split but integrated legislative assembly. See Entscheidungen des Bundesverfassungsgerichts, vol. 37, Tübingen, Mohr, 1974, p. 380. Still, in comparative works the Bundesrat has long been accepted to be very much a second chamber in functional terms. See Klaus von Beyme, ‘Die Funktionen des Bundesrates. Ein Vergleich mit Zwei-Kammer-Systemen im Ausland’, in Der Bundesrat (ed.), Der Bundesrat als Verfassungsorgan und politische Kraft, Bad Honnef and Darmstadt, Neue Darmstädter Verlagsanstalt, 1974, pp. 365–93.

25 Stüwe, Klaus, ‘Das Bundesverfassungsgericht als verlängerter Arm der Opposition? Eine Bilanz seit 1951’, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, B 37–8 (2001), pp. 3444.Google Scholar

26 Christine Landfried, Bundesverfassungsgericht und Gesetzgeber: Wirkungen der Verfassungsrechtsprechung auf parlamentarische Willensbildung und soziale Realität, Baden-Baden, Nomos, 1984.

27 Klaus von Beyme, The Legislator: German Parliament as a Centre of Political Decision-Making, Aldershot, Ashgate, 1998.

28 Helms, Ludger, ‘Deutschlands semi-souveräner Staat: Kontinuität und Wandel parlamentarischer Regierung in der Bundesrepublik’, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, B 43 (2003), pp. 38.Google Scholar

29 Unlike their American or Swiss counterparts, the now 32 members of the German mediation committee are not identical to the actors that have been involved with the matter in question before. Rather, they are specifically chosen in equal numbers by the Bundestag and the state governments, and many of them serve for the whole legislative period. They are free to agree on any conceivable compromise.

30 Peter Schindler, Datenhandbuch zur Geschichte des Deutschen Bundestages 1949 bis 1999, Baden-Baden, Nomos, 1999, pp. 2450–1.

31 Gerhard Lehmbruch, Parteienwettbewerb im Bundesstaat, Stuttgart, Kohlhammer, 1976.

32 Roland Sturm, ‘Party Competition and the Federal System: The Lehmbruch Hypothesis Revisited’, in Charlie Jeffery (ed.), Recasting German Federalism, London, Pinter, 1999, pp. 197–216. The two key developments to be highlighted here relate to the dramatically widened gap between the wealthier and the poorer (mostly eastern) states, and the significantly greater variation of different coalition formulas at state level. Both of these developments have made it more difficult for the opposition parties in the Bundestag to keep ranks with ‘their’ state governments closed.

33 Truman contended that the relative absence of strong disciplined parties in the American political system was mainly produced by the federal system. See David Truman, ‘Federalism and the Party System’, in Arthur W. Macmahon (ed.), Federalism: Mature and Emergent, Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1955, pp. 115–36.

34 Schmidt, Manfred G., ‘The Parties-Do-Matter-Hypothesis and the Case of the Federal Republic of Germany’, German Politics, 4: 3 (1995), p. 10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The SPD's transformation into a moderate ‘people's party’ took place against the background of a series of disappointing electoral performances of the party, and on the basis of a growing conviction that a staunchly ‘adversarial’ style of opposition would no longer work in a strongly power-sharing institutional environment.

35 Duverger, Maurice, ‘A New Political System Model: Semi-Presidential Government’, European Journal of Political Research, 8: 2 (1980), pp. 165–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36 For a comparative assessment of the semi-presidential type of liberal democracy see Robert Elgie (ed.), Semi-Presidentialism in Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.

37 Peyrefitte, Alain, ‘Les trois cohabitations’, Pouvoirs, 91 (1999), pp. 28–9.Google Scholar

38 If the focus is less on the potential tension between representatives from different parties in the offices of president and prime minister, and more on the competition between offices and their holders, it could be argued that the president represents an opposition actor restricting the room for manoeuvre of the prime minister and his government even, and especially, during times of ‘unified government’. Whereas the character of the president as a potential opposition actor is much more obvious during times of cohabitation, his resources are considerably more limited than during times of unified government. This line of reasoning has, however, played no role in the French literature on the Fifth Republic, which can be explained by the prevailing notions of the president as the ‘chief executive’ in the French political system.

39 This is why in the more recent literature many authors prefer to describe the Fifth French Republic and other ‘semi-presidential’ democracies as ‘parliamentary systems with presidential dominance’. See for instance Siaroff, Alan, ‘Comparative Presidencies: The Inadequacy of the Presidential, Semi-Presidential and Parliamentary Distinction’, European Journal of Political Research, 42: 3 (2003), p. 307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

40 John D. Huber, Rationalizing Parliament. Legislative Institutions and Party Politics in France, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

41 Vandendriessche, Xavier, ‘Le parlement entre déclin et modernité’, Pouvoirs, 99 (2001), p. 66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The character of this device as a genuine opposition instrument is underlined by the frequency with which the Conseil is invoked by the opposition parties. Between 1974, when this procedure was introduced, and 2000 no less than 96.2 per cent of all cases initiated by the parliament were triggered by the opposition parties. See Wolfram Vogel, Demokratie und Verfassung in der V. Republik. Frankreichs Weg zur Verfassungsstaatlichkeit, Opladen, Leske + Budrich, 2001, pp. 169–75.

42 They were used just once in 1961, and the criticism that followed was apt to underline their exceptional character. See Maurice Duverger, Le système politique français. Droit constitutionnel et science politique, 21st edn, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1996, p. 517.

43 David S. Bell, Presidential Power in Fifth Republic France, Oxford, Berg, 2000, pp. 179–80.

44 This would appear to include not only the powerlessness of the parliamentary opposition but also the policy-related performances of governments in the Fifth French Republic. See Keeler, John T. S., ‘Executive Power and Policy-Making Patterns in France: Gauging the Impact of the Fifth Republic Institutions’, West European Politics, 16: 4 (1993), pp. 518–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lijphart, Arend, ‘Reply to Lane and Ersson, French Politics: The Virtues of Majoritarian Democracy. Majoritarianism and Democratic Performance in the Fifth Republic’, French Politics, 1: 2 (2003), pp. 225–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

45 There have however been signs of a modest increase in the public reputation of the French parliament more recently. See Rizzuto, Franco, ‘France: Something of a Rehabilitation’, Parliamentary Affairs, 50: 3 (1997), pp. 373–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

46 This may, however, not be explained by institutional factors alone. See Alfred Grosser, ‘Nothing But Opposition’, in Dahl (ed.), Political Oppositions in Western Democracies, op. cit., pp. 284–302.

47 Peyrefitte, ‘Les trois cohabitations’, op. cit.; Bell, Presidential Power in Fifth Republic France, op. cit., pp. 175–96; Elgie, Robert, La cohabitation de longue durée: studying the 1997–2002 experience’, Modern and Contemporary France, 10: 3 (2002), pp. 297311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

48 Apart from this occasion marking a historical precedence, Mitterrand profited significantly from his huge public popularity and the rather shaky conservative government majority, which did not even unanimously accept Chirac as its leader.

49 Bourmaud, Daniel, ‘Les Ves Républiques. Monarchie, dyarchie, polyarchie: variations autour du pouvoir sous la Ve République’, Pouvoirs, 99 (2001), p. 16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

50 See Portelli, Hugues, ‘Arbitre ou chef de l’opposition?’, Pouvoirs, 91 (1999), pp. 5970.Google Scholar

51 The French electoral laws stipulate a run-off election between the two strongest contenders of the first round. In the first round, held on 21 April 2002, Jospin came just third, trailing behind right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen and President Jacques Chirac. The second round produced an overwhelming victory for President Chirac. See Parodi, Jean-Luc, ‘L’énigme de la cohabitation, ou les effects pervers d’une pré-sélection annoncée’, Revue française de science politique, 52: 5–6 (2002), pp. 483504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

52 Polsby, Nelson, ‘Political Opposition in the United States’, Government and Opposition, 32: 4 (1997), p. 511.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

53 Charles O. Jones, The Presidency in a Separated System, Washington, DC, Brookings Institution Press, 1994.

54 See David R. Mayhew, Congressional Opposition to the American Presidency: an Inaugural Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford on 27 November 2000, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

55 A different procedure applies to the so-called ‘pocket veto’ which allows the president to prevent a bill, passed within ten days of adjournment of a session, from becoming law by simply not signing it. In contrast to such cases involving the ‘normal’ presidential veto, Congress cannot override a ‘pocket veto’. The bill must be reintroduced when Congress comes back into session and passed anew for it to be reconsidered.

56 Richard A. Watson, Presidential Vetoes and Public Policy, Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 1993.

57 Victoria Allred, ‘Versatility with the Veto’, Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 19 January 2001, p. 177.

58 Deen, Rebecca E. and Arnold, Laura W., ‘Veto Threats as a Policy Tool: When to Threaten?’, Presidential Studies Quarterly, 32: 1 (2002), pp. 3045.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

59 Charles M. Cameron, Presidents and the Politics of Negative Power, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 178–98.

60 The most up-to-date overview on the various devices mentioned can be found in Roger H. Davidson and Walter J. Oleszek, Congress and Its Members, 9th edn, Washington, DC, Congressional Quarterly Press, 2004. More recently, especially, the senatorial process of scrutiny has come to be considered a matter of concern in terms of the very significant time costs of the procedure. See on this G. Calvin Mackenzie (ed.), special issue of The Brookings Review, 19: 2 (2001).

61 Polsby, ‘Political Opposition in the United States’, op. cit., p. 513. As the more recent experience suggests, there is in fact a very strong political element in the decision of Congress to impeach the president. In a survey, published at the height of the impeachment of President Clinton, no less than 78 per cent of American citizens felt that this impeachment was more about politics than about the investigation of possible crimes. See National Journal, 20 February 1999, p. 501.

62 Polsby, ‘Political Opposition in the United States’, op. cit., pp. 519–20.

63 Anthony King, ‘Distrust of Government: Explaining American Exceptionalism’, in Susan J. Pharr and Robert D. Putnam (eds), Disaffected Democracies. What's Troubling the Trilateral Countries?, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 91–5.

64 For figures on the development of partisan voting by chamber since the mid-1950s see Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 14 December 2002, pp. 3281–2.

65 See Eric Schickler, ‘Congress’, in Gillian Peele et al. (eds), Developments in American Politics 4, London, Macmillan, 2002, p. 108.

66 Edwards, III et al. , ‘The Legislative Impact of Divided Government’, American Journal of Political Science, 41: 2 (1997), pp. 545–63.Google Scholar As more recent research has found, it also matters in terms of legislative outcomes as to whether just one or both legislative chambers are being controlled by what may be described from the president's view as the ‘opposition party’. See Binder, Sarah A. George C., ‘The Dynamics of Legislative Gridlock, 1947–96’, American Political Science Review, 93: 3 (1999), pp. 519–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

67 Fleisher, Richard and Bond, Jon R., ‘The President in a More Partisan Legislative Arena’, Political Research Quarterly, 49: 4 (1996), pp. 729–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jaenicke, Douglas W., ‘Congressional Partisanship and Presidential Success: The Case of the Clinton and Bush Presidencies’, Politics, 18: 3 (1998), pp. 141–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

68 Respective figures are annually calculated and published by Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report. It should be noted, however, that scores measure only the proportion of bills which the president supported publicly; they do not account specifically for the proportion of legislative measures being actually initiated by the president. The statistical approach to assessing presidential performance in the legislative arena also does not distinguish between the relevance of individual measures passed by Congress.

69 Many of the legislative measures that Bush supported explicitly in public were among those that had been initiated by Congress rather than by himself. Moreover, the number of floor votes on which Bush took a clear position was very small, especially in 2002. See John Cochran, ‘Bush Readies Strategies for Legislative Success in 2003’, Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 14 December 2002, pp. 3235–58.

70 As the dean of modern presidential studies has argued, the weakness of the contemporary presidency is by no means confined to the legislative arena. See Neustadt, Richard E., ‘The Weakening White House’, British Journal of Political Science, 31: 1 (2001), pp. 111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

71 Waterman, Richard W. et al., ‘The Expectations Gap Thesis: Public Attitudes toward an Incumbent President’, Journal of Politics, 61: 4 (1999), pp. 944–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

72 Whereas the indirect election of the federal executive (consisting of seven members) by both chambers of the Swiss parliament, and its right to formally initiate federal legislation are reminiscient of the parliamentary form of government, the fixed term of the executive and its inability to dissolve the legislature have more in common with the basic features of presidential government.

73 For an overview see Wolf Linder, ‘Direkte Demokratie’, in Ulrich Klöti et al. (eds), Handbuch der Schweizer Politik, Zürich, Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 1999, pp. 109–30.

74 Historically, the Liberals were the only governing party. In 1891 the Catholic branch of the then conservative opposition was co-opted into the government; the Swiss People's Party followed in 1929. The Social Democrats, finally, joined the government for the first time in 1943.

75 Leonhard Neidhart, Die politische Schweiz. Fundamente und Institutionen, Zürich, Verlag Neue Züricher Zeitung, 2002, pp. 343–51. Since 1959, with the exception of the Swiss People's Party which has held just one seat, all other governing parties have controlled two seats in the federal executive.

76 Kris W. Kobach, The Referendum: Direct Democracy in Switzerland, Aldershot, Dartmouth, 1993, p. 161.

77 Yannis Papadopoulos, ‘How Does Direct Democracy Matter? The Impact of Referendum Votes on Politics and Policy-Making’, in Jan-Erik Lane (ed.), The Swiss Labyrinth. Institutions, Outcomes and Redesign, London, Cass, 2001, p. 49.

78 Trechsel, Alexander H. and Sciarini, Pascal, ‘Direct Democracy in Switzerland: Do Elites Matter?’, European Journal of Political Research, 33: 1 (1998), p. 110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

79 Ibid., p. 118.

80 Ludger Helms, Politische Opposition. Theorie und Praxis in westlichen Regierungssystemen, Opladen, Leske + Budrich, 2002, p. 175.

81 The background of this spectacular election result, and the lengthy arguments in the aftermath of the election, was provided by the highly aggressive and disturbingly right-wing populist campaign propaganda of the People's Party. See Linder, Wolf and Lutz, Georg, ‘The Parliamentary Elections in Switzerland, October 1999’, Electoral Studies, 21: 1 (2002), pp. 128–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

82 See for instance Wolf Linder, Swiss Democracy. Possible Solutions to Conflict in Multicultural Societies, 2nd edn, London, Macmillan, 1998, pp. 126–8; Brunetti, Aymo and Straubhaar, Thomas, ‘Direkte Demokratie –“bessere” Demokratie? Was lehrt uns das Schweizer Beispiel?’, Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft, 6: 1 (1996), pp. 1417.Google Scholar

83 Robert A. Dahl, ‘Thinking About Democratic Constitutions: Conclusions From Democratic Experience’, in Robert A. Dahl, Toward Democracy: A Journey. Reflections, 1940–1997, vol. 1, Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies Press, University of California, Berkeley, 1997, p. 505.

84 See for instance Stepan, Alfred and Skach, Cindy, ‘Constitutional Frameworks and Democratic Consolidation: Parliamentarism versus Presidentialism’, World Politics, 46: 1 (1993), pp. 122;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Juan J. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela (eds), The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Comparative Perspectives, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994; Dahl, ‘Thinking About Democratic Constitutions’, op. cit., pp. 496–9.

85 This is both due to the enlarged complexity of many issues and the considerably increased ‘longevity’ of outcomes of many legislative decisions, especially in such areas as environmental or energy policy, or the reform of the social security systems. See Dietrich Herzog, ‘Der Funktionswandel des Parlaments in der sozialstaatlichen Demokratie’, in Dietrich Herzog et al. (eds), Parlament und Gesellschaft. Eine Funktionsanalyse der repräsentativen Demokratie, Opladen, Westdeutscher Verlag, 1993, pp. 13–52.

86 As a ‘realistic’ perspective reveals, however, the constitutional doctrine of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ has been gradually undermined for many decades with more recent chapters of this process focusing on the growing role of the mass media and the changing nature of a ‘Europeanized’ system of ‘judicial review’. See Peter Riddell, Parliament under Blair, London, Politico's Publishing, 2000, pp. 160–3, 227–32; Gillian Peele, ‘The Law and the Constitution’, in Patrick Dunleavy et al. (eds), Developments in British Politics 6, London, Macmillan, 2000, pp. 78–80.

87 See for instance Larry Diamond, Developing Democracy. Toward Consolidation, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, pp. 161–217; Detlef Pollack et al. (eds), Political Culture in Post-Communist Europe. Attitudes in New Democracies, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2003.

88 Article 67 of the German Basic Law stipulates that a chancellor (and his government) can only be voted out of office if a majority of the members of the Bundestag simultaneously elects a successor.

89 David P. Conradt, ‘Changing German Political Culture’, in Gabriel A. Almond and Sidney Verba (eds), The Civic Culture Revisited, Boston, Little, Brown, 1980, pp. 212–72.

90 Hofferbert, Richard I. and Klingemann, Hans-Dieter, ‘Democracy and its Discontents in Post-Wall Germany’, International Political Science Review, 22: 4 (2001), pp. 363–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

91 This was true for the SPD in the 1998 election campaign as much as it was for the FDP in 2002.

92 That is why many of those scholars of German politics who have argued in favour of an introduction of some direct democratic devices at the federal level, suggest a careful reconsideration of the powers of the Bundesrat. See Helms, Politische Opposition, op. cit., pp. 190–1.

93 For a comparative assessment of ‘divided government’ scenarios under different constitutional conditions see Robert Elgie (ed.), Divided Government in Comparative Perspective, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

94 For a detailed overview see David Butler and Austin Ranney (eds), Referendums around the World. The Growing Use of Direct Democracy, London, Macmillan, 1994.

95 Pier Vincenzo Uleri, ‘Italy: Referendums and Initiatives from the Origins to the Crisis of a Democratic Regime’, in Michael Gallagher and Pier Vincenzo Uleri (eds), The Referendum Experience in Europe, London, Macmillan, 1996, pp. 106–25.

96 See B. Guy Peters, Institutional Theory in Political Science. The ‘New Institutionalisms’, London, Pinter, 1999.

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