The impact of the opposition in established democracies

Project Draft by Dr. Simon T. Franzmann,
assisted by Johannes Schmitt

How does the opposition influence the government's policy-making in modern democracies? In contrast to the numerous studies of government’s capabilities, the democratic opposition is rather rarely subject of international, comparative research. Considering opposition’s crucial role within a working democracy (Dahl 1966: xvi-xviii), this circumstance is quite surprising. Their decisive functions are the critic and control of the incumbents as well as providing an alternative for the electorate (Schmidt 1992). In consequence, the opposition has different strategic opportunities to affect directly or indirectly government’s policy-making.

Furthermore, different types of opposition (Kirchheimer 1957; King 1976; Sartori 1976; Andeweg 1992; Schedler 1996; Blondel 1997; Capoccia 2007; Norton 2008) should also have different capabilities to influence the policy-making process depending on their strategy, goals, and the institutional context. For example, an anti-system party does not contest particular policy proposals. Instead, such an actor contests all parts of the current system, e.g. political institution or other system-supporting actors. In contrast, an anti-establishment or anti-government opposition competes with a specific group of actors, e.g. governing or established parties. An issue-oriented opposition again aims to prevent or realize concrete policies.

The initial point of the project are two problems with recent studies of democratic opposition: On the one hand, there are hardly any comparative studies based on up-to-date party competition indicators. On the other hand, the different analytical levels of oppositional actions are only linked to a limited extent. Hence, our project aims to solve this research gap through the application of a nested analysis. Two essential research steps are planned – (1) a large-N analysis and (2) case studies based on an agent-based simulation.

(1) Data collecting and time-series cross-section analysis

First, we collect the necessary data to make a quantitative analysis possible. Therefore, we connect and complement already existing data sets of political institutions, party competition, cabinet survival and voter preferences. Based on this fundament, we develop indicators to measure the programmatic and ideological competition as well as the oppositional types within party systems.

Next, we examine step-by-step causes and effects of varying patterns of opposition in established democracies. Therefore, we apply times-series cross-section analyses. First, we examine the dependency between political institutions and occurring opposition types. Here, we are especially interested in the influence of the electoral system and veto points on these patterns, e.g. the fragmentation and the ideological polarization of the opposition. Furthermore, we study how different competitive situations shape the oppositional strategic opportunities and how these effects influence, in turn, the dynamics of party competition. Finally, we analyze the impact of the examined patterns of opposition in the policy-making process. On the one hand, the purpose of the quantitative research is to test our hypotheses. On the other hand, we want to identify typical and deviant cases referring to the common theoretical frameworks.

(2) Agent-based modeling and Case Study

In the next step, we will link the different, examined analytical levels of the large-N analysis. Here, our purpose is the identification of explaining mechanisms. Based on a developed agent-based model (ABM), we study potential explanations on the theoretical level (Hedström/Ylikoski 2010: 62 ff.) and, following, examine these mechanisms on the empirical level with the help of case studies. Thereby, we want to realize three different goals:

1.  Linking the different analytical levels within a unified and logical consistent model.

2. The identification of hidden mechanisms (Hedström/Ylikoski 2010).

3. Explaining the examined, statistical relationships and identifying causes for deviant and typical cases of the preliminary quantitative analysis.


Schmitt, Johannes and Franzmann, Simon T. (2018): A Polarizing Dynamic by Center Cabinets? The Mechanism of Limited Contestation. In: Historical Social Research.

ABM Code of the general model (undefinedNetLogo-File)

ABM Code of the special case (german federal election 2017, undefinedNetLogo-File)


German Research Foundation

Grant sum:

172.525,- €


1. Oktober 2016 bis 31. März 2019

Project leader:

Dr. Simon T. Franzmann

Project staff:

Johannes Schmitt, M.A.
(Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter)

Simon Miksch

(Studentische Hilfskraft)
Oliver Rittmann

(Studentische Hilfskraft)



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Blondel, J. (1997). Political Opposition in the Contemporary World. Government and Opposition, 32 (4), 462–486.

Capoccia, G. (2002). Anti-System Parties. A Conceptual Reassessment. Journal of Theoretical Politics, 14 (1), 9–35.

Dahl, R. A. (ed.) (1966). Political Oppositions in Western Democracies. New Haven [u.a.]: Yale University Press.

Hedström, P. & Ylikoski, P. (2010). Causal Mechanisms in the Social Sciences. Annual Review of Sociology, 36 (1), 49–67.

King, A. (1976). Modes of Executive-Legislative Relations: Great Britain, France, and West Germany. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 1 (1), 11–36.

Kirchheimer, O. (1957). The waning of opposition in parliamentary regimes. Social Research, 24 (1), 127-156.

Norton, P. (2008). Making Sense of Opposition. The Journal of Legislative Studies, 14 (1-2), 236–250.

Sartori, G. (1976). Parties and party systems: A framework for analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schedler, A. (1996). Anti-Political-Establishment Parties. Party Politics, 2 (3), 291–312.

Schmidt, M. G. (1992). Opposition. In M. G. Schmidt & D. Nohlen (ed.), Lexikon der Politik. Munich: C.H. Beck, 283–288.

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