Install the app

Install this application on your home screen for quick and easy access when you’re on the go.

Just tap Share then “Add to Home Screen”

Host an ECPR event

Opposition Parties as Strategic Actors in Parliament

Parties and elections
Workshop Number
Workshop Director
Elisabetta De Giorgi
Instituto Português de Relações Internacionais, IPRI-NOVA
Workshop Co-Director
Gabriella Ilonszki
Corvinus University of Budapest

The main purpose of this workshop is to shed light on how parliamentary opposition behaves and what affects its behaviour. The workshop aims to examine opposition behaviour from the perspective of the parties’ strategic goals and thus tackles the academic challenge to bring parties back in to parliamentary studies (Green-Pedersen, 2010). Parliaments have generally improved as a working place for opposition. Parliamentary reforms have given more visibility and opportunities to the opposition, parliaments have become more open by involving the public through different deliberative instruments and new media (Griffith and Leston-Bandera, 2012) and the opposition does not seem to be on the losing side in this process. On the other hand, the parliaments’ functions and relevance have been challenged in face of stronger executives and international – mostly European – constraints (Laffan, 2014; Goetz, 2014), although the way national parliaments can maintain their position varies (Winzen, 2017). The opposition must clearly respond to these new challenges by adapting its behaviour to these new dynamics, but its opportunities will depend also on the strength of the entire parliament (Auel et al., 2015).

In the mid-1960s, large variation was found in the behaviour of the opposition actor(s), both within and among countries (Dahl, 1966). The debate continues about whether opposition has become blurred (Andeweg, 2013) or government-opposition divide is explicit (Loxbo and Sjölinl, 2016). Recent research acknowledged an increasingly active and conflictual parliamentary opposition, as far as its oversight activity and voting behaviour are concerned – and, somewhat unsurprisingly, a more passive opposition in terms of legislative initiative (De Giorgi and Ilonszki, 2018). The reported increase in the scrutiny of government and in the level of conflict between government and opposition demonstrates a propensity of the latter – and, above all, of the permanent and new opposition parties – to make the government constantly accountable for its action. It might well be the case that this growth is not only a result of the tasks that the opposition parties must face and fulfil, but also of new party strategies and, in particular, visibility needs.

The behaviour of opposition parties in parliament – similarly, of course, to that of governing parties – is driven by electoral, office-seeking and policy-seeking goals: they aim to gain votes as well as positions and to implement policies (Müller and Strom, 1999;). While these strategic considerations seem to be obvious, they might trigger diverse opposition’s behaviours. Of course, strategic goals are connected in complex ways (Brauninger and Debus, 2009), and they can change due to different constraints or opportunities. More particularly, party strategic motivations will depend on party attributes as “some parties are better suited for strategic action than others” (Rovny, 2015, p. 916). Parties’ “suitability” will arguably depend on certain party aspects. It can be rightly expected that several partisan features will influence party goals and opposition parties’ parliamentary behaviour.
Parties that are permanently in opposition, including the new successful party families and diverse challenger parties (Mair, 1997; 2011; Bardi et al., 2014; Hobolt and Tilley, 2016) will behave differently than those for whom the opposition status is only temporary. Nevertheless, even this distinction might give rise to diverse opposition strategies. For example, a large party with many diverse and often contradictory interests within will exercise the role of opposition in parliament in a different way than a minor party that groups just a few interests in a particularly well-defined manner (Pedersen, 2012). In addition to individual party features, the party system, particularly its degree of polarisation, will influence the nature of the competition between government and opposition and thus the opposition behaviour. Finally, the structure of opposition – i.e. its (more or less) fragmented and polarised nature – will have an impact on the opposition’s conduct. It might well happen that the same party, in an apparently similar party system, will change its parliamentary behaviour as the structure of competition changes. The opposition actors will rethink their behaviour – formerly potential parliamentary allies might become intransigent rivals – if they turn to attract the same electoral base or occupy a policy stance that makes consensus-oriented behaviour detrimental to party success. Overall, in some instances, opposition cooperation might be both possible and rewarding; in others, it might appear as a threat from the perspective of an opposition party.

How opposition parties’ strategic goals are played out in parliament then? To answer this question, the workshop aims at analysing the main activities undertaken by opposition parties in parliament, that is, voting on legislation, proposing legislation and scrutinising the government. In fact, while opposition parties in parliament may vote for or against the government’s legislative proposals, they can also propose their own legislation and/or focus on the government’s scrutiny. The workshop intentionally chooses to combine all these aspects and not to select one of them in particular because these behaviours are expectedly interconnected and reveal the opposition parties’ goals together. Academic literature on parliamentary/legislative studies have produced rich information on government vs opposition (or majority vs minority) divide and opposition behaviour in these above mentioned aspects (Döhring 1995, Helms 2008).
The novelty of the proposed workshop (and the focus of the expected contributions) is to connect opposition behaviour with party goals, identify causal explanations and possibly find patterns. How do party goals define opposition behaviour with respect to vote, scrutiny or legislation? Can we expect that, as parties play nested games (Tsebelis, 1991), their behaviours in different opposition activities will connect and influence each other, that is will be complementary and coherent? Are they “strategically” connected?
We expect that, due to the partisan approach, opposition success or failure can be evaluated above and exceeding mere numerical evidence in the three main areas of their behaviour. The success of political parties is generally measured through the achievement of their strategic goals – how can this work with opposition parties? Is not opposition success a more complex issue? Are opposition parties successful when they are able to throw the government into crisis with a strong confidence motion – although being unable to form a new executive, as recent examples demonstrate? Or are they rather successful when they gain office, but then they pay a high electoral price at the successive election? When is it more advantageous to implement common opposition behaviour and when is better for an opposition party to “stay alone”? Do opposition parties learn (modify, transform, adapt) their opposition behaviour?

The expectation of the workshop organisers is that the examination of opposition parties will illuminate possible parliamentary developments as well. We consider internal diversity, increased activity and attentive openness towards external actors as important attributes of today’s opposition. How does this changing opposition impact parliament? Former research has demonstrated that parliaments tend to open up towards the extra-parliamentary spaces (and actors) but not always with full success (Leston-Bandeira and Bernardes Brum, 2016). Do opposition parties help parliament connect to the public, thanks to their more active and challenging way of action? Do parliamentary regulations change in face of elevated activity?
To be able to reflect on these questions the workshop wants to find empirical and comparative evidence of the opposition parties’ parliamentary behaviour in the above mentioned three dimensions, but also aims to extend the usual empirical focus on parliamentary opposition behaviour with respect to time, sites of encounter and arenas arguing that this broadening will help connect opposition goals with their parliamentary behaviour. First, as far as time is concerned, evidence regarding the opposition’s behaviour is usually collected based on legislative (or, at best, government) terms. Is it justified to limit our research and expectations to this time frame? Parliamentary parties might change their attitudes and behaviour within a term, which reflects emerging or declining political opportunities and, thus, changing party strategies. On what grounds, how fast, and with what consequences do such changes occur within a legislature?
Second, research on opposition behaviour is often exclusively focused on their visible (usually plenary) activity. The less visible processes and sites of encounter – between government and opposition, and also between the opposition actors themselves – should be included in the analysis. This is particularly important in the policy dimension. Is opposition really marginal to policy outcome (Powell, 2000) – a conclusion that is often drawn on the basis of opposition parties’ limited policy initiatives and their even more limited success? The analysis should extend to other spaces, to the informal sites and/or to the less visible ones.
Lastly, the extra-parliamentary arena should be incorporated to the question how parties play out the opposition game in parliament. Like other political actors, also the opposition has today easier access to the media and the media, with its different forms, can easily peek in and report on opposition activities (Vliegenhart et al., 2016). This access is a clear advantage because the opposition parties can forward their message more easily (Seeberg, 2013). The increased role of the media reflects public demand as well. For sure, there is a more critical public opinion (Stoker, 2017) that demands more responsibility and accountability nowadays what also affects opposition parties. This attention – together with the new media opportunities – encourages the opposition to be actively on the scene and not to miss any issue that might draw attention to them. How are opposition parties using these extra-parliamentary tools and spaces to make their parliamentary behaviour more visible and successful? Is it possible to identify any clear pattern here?
Overall we expect that through a systematic inclusion of parties in parliamentary studies new knowledge can be built about the causes and processes of opposition behaviour in parliament.

Andeweg, R. B. (2013) Parties in Parliament: The Blurring of Opposition. In: Wolfgang C. Müller and Hanne Marthe Narud (eds.) Party Governance and Party Democracy. Springer, 99- 113.
Auel, K., Rozenberg, O. and Tacea, A. (2015). Fighting Back? And, If So, How? Measuring Parliamentary Strength and Activity in EU Affairs. In C. Hefftler, C. Neuhold, O. Rozenberg and J. Smith (Eds.) The Palgrave Handbook National Parliaments and the European Union. Palgrave Macmillan, 60-93.
Bardi, L., Bartolini, S., Trechsel, A. (2014). Responsive and Responsible? The role of Parties in Twenty-First Century Politics. West European Politics, 37(2), 235-252.
Dahl, R. (Ed.) (1966). Political Oppositions in Western Democracies. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
De Giorgi, E. and Ilonszki, G. (forthcoming 2018) Conclusions, in E. De Giorgi and G. Ilonszki (eds.), Opposition parties in European legislatures. Conflict or consensus? Abingdon, Routledge.
Döring H. ed. Parliaments and Majority Rule in Western Europe. MZES: University of Mannheim
Goetz, K. H. (2014) A Question of Time: Responsive and Responsible Democratic Politics. West European Politics, 37(2), 379-399.
Green-Pedersen, C. (2010) Bringing Parties into Parliament. The Development of Parliamentary Activities in Western Europe. Party Politics, 16 (3): 347-369.
Griffith, J. and Leston-Bandeira, C. (2012). How Are Parliaments Using New Media to Engage with Citizens?. The Journal of Legislative Studies, 18(3-4), 496-513.
Helms, L. (2008) Studying Parliamentary Opposition in Old and New Democracies: Issues and Perspectives. The Journal of Legislative Studies, 14(1-2): 6-19.
Hobolt, S. B. and Tilley, J. (2016) “Fleeing the centre: the rise of challenger parties in the aftermath of the euro crisis”. West European Politics, DOI: 10.1080/01402382.2016.1181871.
Laffan, B. (2014). Testing Times: The Growing Primacy of Responsibility in the Euro Area. West European Politics, 37(2), 270-287.
Leston Bandeira, C. and Bender, D. (2013) How Deeply are Parliaments Engaging on Social Media?. Information Polity, 18(4), 281-297.
Loxbo, K. and Sjölin, M. (2016) Parliamentary Opposition on the Wane? The Case of Sweden, 1970–2014. Government and Opposition, 52(4), 587-613.
Mair, P. (2011). Bini Smaghi vs. the parties: representative government and institutional constraints. Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and EU Democracy Observatory, EUI working paper no. 2011/22, European University Institute, Florence.
Mair, P. (1997). Party System Change: Approaches and Interpretations. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Müller, W. C., and Strøm, K. (eds.) (1999) Policy, Office, or Votes? How Political Parties in Western Europe Make Hard Decisions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pedersen, H. H. (2012) What do Parties Want? Policy versus Office. West European Politics, 35(4), 896-910.
Powell, B. G. (2000) Elections as Instruments of Democracy: Majoritarian and Proportional Visions. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.
Rovny, J. (2015) Riker and Rokkan: Remarks on the strategy and structure of party competition. Party Politics, 21(6).
Seeberg, H. B. (2013) The opposition’s policy influence through issue politicisation. Journal of Public Policy, 33(1), 89-107.
Stoker, G. (2017) Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work. London: Palgrave.
Tsebelis, G. (1991) Nested Games: Rational Choice in Comparative Politics, University of California Press.
Vliegenhart, R. et al. (2016) Do the media set the parliamentary agenda? A comparative study in seven countries. European Journal of Political Research, 55(2), 283-301.
Winzen, T. (2017) Constitutional preferences and parliamentary reform: Explaining national parliaments’ adaptation to European integration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paper List

Title Details
From Opposition to a New Position? Exploring the Transformation of 'Sovereigntist Parliamentary Groups' in Europe View Paper Details
Holding Tight or Letting Go? Parliamentary Opposition Behaviour in New Democracies View Paper Details
How to Deal with Executive Secrecy? Opposition Perspectives and Practices Concerning a Democratic Conundrum View Paper Details
Is Responsibility Merely a Government’s Prerogative? Government and Opposition’s Action Put to the Test View Paper Details
Legislative Votes and Visions of Democracy View Paper Details
Making and Breaking Parliamentary Opportunity Structures View Paper Details
MP Cooperation in Opposition Parties View Paper Details
New Challenger Parties in Opposition: Isolation or Cooperation? View Paper Details
Populist Opposition: A Comparative Approach to the Opposition Styles of Populist Parties View Paper Details
Searching for Influence: Parliamentary Opposition in Slovakia between 1994 and 2016 View Paper Details
The Portuguese Communist Party's Historical, Parliamentary, Oppositional Tactics View Paper Details
Turning the Clock: The Manipulation of Legislative Time as a Strategy in Bicameral Bargaining View Paper Details
Understanding the Role of Small Opposition Parties in the UK’s Parliaments: Institutional Constraints and Party Strategies View Paper Details
Voting Behavior of Opposition Parties in Sweden View Paper Details
Share this page