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A veto player is an individual or collective actor who possesses veto power in a political process and behaves strategically. Particular conceptions of the basic concept have to specify, among other things, what the relevant process is, who the veto players are and what motivates them. The most influential conception of veto players has been developed by George Tsebelis (2002) in his veto player theory. Tsebelis relies on the concept of veto player in order to unify the comparative analysis of political systems. One part of this unification is conceptual. Tsebelis argues that traditional institutional dichotomies such as between unicameral and bicameral parliaments or between presidential and parliamentary systems of government can to some significant extent be replaced by analyzing political systems and situations as particular veto player configurations. But veto player theory also aims at unifying our causal understanding of politics. The basis of this causal unification is the concept of policy stability, i.e. the difficulty of changing the existing policies (the “status quo”) in a political system. Policy stability is the causal mechanism that links veto player configurations to particular outcomes of substantive importance. Two examples: Tsebelis argues that in parliamentary systems, in which the cabinet depends on the confidence of the assembly, policy stability leads to cabinet instability. If the cabinet cannot agree on policy change, it will be replaced. For presidential systems, in contrast, veto player theory predicts that policy stability is likely to encourage a coup or some other form of regime instability. Neither of these two arguments is completely new, and they can be criticized, but veto player theory embeds both of them, and many others, in one relatively parsimonious and coherent framework. Tsebelis distinguishes two types of veto players. Institutional players are those established by a country’s constitution. For example, the U.S. Constitution identifies the president as a veto player. Partisan players are established by the way political competition plays out in a given country at a given time. One important analytical strategy of veto player theory is to focus on partisan veto players whenever possible. For example, instead of treating the Finnish parliament as one institutional veto player, the theory treats those cabinet parties forming a majority coalition within the parliament as partisan veto players. One advantage of
It is mainly these assumptions that give empirical content to the theory and hence make it testable. Tsebelis derives specific hypotheses about the relationship between veto players and policy stability. Tsebelis’ interpreted veto player theory assumes that A. i. I suggest distinguishing between “pure” and “interpreted” veto player theory. the allocation of agendasetting power and the internal cohesion of collective veto players may also be of great importance for the outcome of collective decisions. Tsebelis relies on game theory and a spatial representation of preferences. then this player does not matter in the analysis: it is absorbed. To discuss the limits and criticism of Tsebelis’ theory. For example. Yet we know that the assumptions are idealizations or useful fictions. Yet one crucial insight of the formal analysis is that the number of veto players alone tells us little about the potential for policy change. multi-dimensional legislature. Consider an example. interpreted veto player theory includes assumptions about how the formal models relate to reality. The pure theory consists of the formal models in which the conclusions follow logically from the assumptions. Actors’ preferences are represented by a point – their so-called ideal point – in some one-dimensional or multi-dimensional policy space and actors’ main goal is to move the collective decision as close as possible to this point. In contrast to pure theory. Veto player theory analyses the interplay of these explanatory factors. The combination of these two facts – “false” assumptions and valid conclusions – implies that testing the “truth” or “falsity” of the veto player theory is not a meaningful enterprise. One important formal result of veto player theory is the “absorption rule”. many theorists make conflicting assumptions about how these deductions are to be applied to the real world. parties A. Moreover. Tsebelis argues that even courts with the authority to review and veto legislation can often be ignored in veto player analyses because they are selected in ways that virtually guarantee their absorption. What matters is how this number interacts with the distances between veto players’ preferences ideal points.e.“replacing” institutional with partisan veto players for analytical purposes is that we may be able to ascribe particular policy preferences to the latter. B and C form a majority coalition whereas parties D and E are in opposition. The more important question is whether the theory is useful for particular purposes. Moreover. B and C are veto players on 2 . Based on these formal tools. Estimating actors’ preferences is crucial for the application of veto player theory. while no theorist doubts the validity of Tsebelis’ deductions. if its ideal point is in the so-called “unanimity core”. In a five-party. the location of the status quo. A superficial reading of veto player theory often misunderstands it as proving a seemingly trivial point: that a higher number of veto players increases policy stability. This rule states that if a (potential) veto player has an ideal point that is geometrically embedded within the ideal points of other veto players.
highlighted by McGann (2006). but it is not known in advance which party or parties will support the cabinet on a particular piece of legislation. at least in part. as would be the case if one party had a majority in parliament. Yet these preferences are often difficult to measure. McGann expects it to be within the so-called “uncovered set” for the entire five-party parliament.all policies. based on the view that many veto players increase transaction costs. Interpreted veto player theory is often tested in isolation rather than compared with competing theories. Formally speaking. By definition. For Tsebelis. theorists may also use the label of “veto players” to refer. Taking opposition parties’ preferences into account may thus be a way to reduce their incentives to challenge the existing coalition. A third assumption. it is sufficient to be a member of the actual winning coalition in order to be a veto player. B and C. to other pure theories. Or it is simply applied to some phenomenon. Just as Tsebelis’ pure veto player theory may be interpreted differently. A competing assumption. Hence he treats only cabinet parties as veto players. however. the parties forming a minority cabinet do not have sufficient seats in parliament to change the status quo. for two related reasons: it is difficult to adequately measure actors’ policy preferences and it is difficult to unambiguously identify actual veto players. They highlight the relevance of the mere number of veto players. For instance. 3 . while Tsebelis expects the collective decision to be within the unanimity core of the putative veto players A. is that legislation may reflect the preferences of all five parties. Even these non-comparative tests or applications are not without problems. The problem of measuring preferences is this: Veto player theory refers to actors’ final (all-things-considered) preferences over legislative proposals. Basinger and Hallerberg (2004) question the importance of Tsebelis’ absorption rule.g. Empirical estimates of preferences based on party manifestos or expert surveys often measure parties’ general ideological orientations or outcome preferences (e. The problem of identification is most obvious in the case of minority cabinets. is that each minister is a sort of policy dictator for his or her portfolio so that one of the three parties alone determines policy on a particular issue. Tsebelis argues that minority cabinets tend to have a privileged position in the policy space as well as strong agenda-setting powers. especially in broad comparative studies. The reason is that one of the opposition parties may undermine the existing coalition by forming an alternative coalition that makes some of the members better of. so that they typically do not have to make significant concessions to support parties. Other authors doubt Tsebelis’ assumptions and believe that support parties can be quite powerful (Ganghof and Bräuninger. but they may be contested. For McGann. proposed by Laver and Shepsle’s (1996). Assumptions about how to identify veto players are part of the interpretation of pure veto player theory: they increase the theory’s empirical content and hence testability. regardless of the distances between their preferences. 2006). a true veto player must be a member of every possible winning coalition.
Laver. comparative analyses typically lack the detailed information on individual preferences that would be needed to apply these tools empirically. veto player theory is a great achievement. It helps to unify our understanding of political systems and political processes. If this gap is ignored. For example. Partisan Veto Players in Australia. Scott and Mark Hallerberg (2004) 'Remodeling the Competition for Capital: How Domestic Politics Erases the Race-to-the-Bottom'. Journal of Legislative Studies 12: 443461. And such unification of knowledge is central to scientific progress. Steffen and Thomas Bräuninger (2006) 'Government Status and Legislative Behaviour. Despite these limitations. thus allowing for significant policy change. Parliamentary Systems. (2006) 'Social Choice and Comparing Legislatures: Constitutional versus Institutional Constraints'. It is also possible that policy preferences are much more proximate. George (2002) Veto Players. if an empirical analysis measures veto players’ outcome preferences. At the same time. there is a significant gap between theory and measurement. Princeton. Applications of veto player theory therefore often focus on parliamentary systems and boil down to the assumption that cabinet parties are veto players. McGann. 4 . possibly due to strong economic or technological constraints faced by the players. Party Politics 12: 521-539. Michael and Kenneth Shepsle (1996) Making and Breaking Governments. The problems of identification and preference measurement also imply that veto player theory is strongest when applied to cohesive and/or disciplined parties. Tsebelis. See also: Coalitions. Denmark. While veto player theory has all the formal tools to deal with situations of non-cohesive parties. Game Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Anthony J. How Political Institutions Work. Policy Change. the predictions of veto player theory may be misunderstood. a high or a low business tax rate). American Political Science Review 98: 261-276. Presidentialism Further Reading Basinger. If this is the case. Finland and Germany'. The difficulty of dealing with non-cohesive parties is quite significant because the likelihood of such parties is much greater in presidential systems. it is far from clear that large distances between these preferences lead to policy stability.more growth versus more equality) rather than their final policy preferences (e. Ganghof. NJ: Princeton University Press.g. presidential systems are also more likely to have significant institutional veto points in addition to (the first chamber of) parliament.