Simone Wegmann

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Research on national parliaments and public opinion
“The Power of Opposition. The Influence of Opposition Power on Democratic Consolidation”. Book project
The argument of this book project is based on three different literatures in comparative politics. First, on the rather conflicting results of the influence of different political regimes (notably parliamentary and presidential regimes) on democratic stability. Second, on the influence of mass beliefs and, third, on economic models explaining democratic transitions and the role of different groups in democratic decision-making processes. I argue that a political regime should not only be characterized by the way governments are formed for two reasons. First, not all countries clearly match the ideal types of parliamentary and presidential systems, respectively. Second, such a classification does not consider the central role of electoral losers for the survival of democracies as it only focuses on electoral winners (i.e. government parties). Economic models emphasize the importance of consent to democracy for the process of democratization. In such models, a rich minority will only agree with democracy when the costs attributed with such a regime are limited. Similarly, I argue that electoral losers will be more satisfied with democracy if losing elections does not automatically mean being excluded from the decision-making process. Hence, one major contribution of this book project is the theoretical concept of “policy-making power of opposition players” and the comprehensive data collection to be able to measure this concept. By focusing on electoral losers, I propose a new angle to the question on which institutional settings favor support for and consolidation of democracy.

“Opposition in Parliament – Causes and Consequences”
Democratic elections normally not only lead to the formation of a government but also result in an opposition. In this logic, a democratic election is as much about winning as it is about losing and, hence, oppositions are an inherent part of democracies. Despite this crucial role of opposition parties in democratic regimes, research in political science has mostly neglected oppositions and their role in democracies. This project brings oppositions into focus as crucial actors of the democratic decision-making process and proposes to look at the legislative organization from the perspective of opposition players. The project focuses on the potential influence of opposition players in the policy-making process and presents data on more than 70 national legislatures around the world. The presented index of policy-making power of opposition players includes three different dimensions – initiation, debate, and veto – allowing for a fine-grained analysis of the power of opposition players. Results show considerable variance of the power of opposition players among democracies. A comparison of the power of opposition players when it comes to the initiation the debate, and possible veto power indicates some specific patterns among regions as well as regime types. These different levels of policy-making power of opposition players might have important consequences for the functioning of democracies and individual political behavior alike.
Therefore, in a second step, the project looks more closely into the relationship between parliamentary opposition power and government formation. Whereas a wide literature exists on the government formation process in parliamentary regimes, this process is less investigated in presidential ones. The project looks at coalition governments in presidential regimes and whether strong policy-making power of opposition players can explain the occurrence of such governments. Similarly, a broad literature exists on the occurrence of minority governments in parliamentary regimes. Using the novel data of policy-making power of opposition players, the project investigates whether strong parliamentary opposition power can explain the occurrence of minority government in parliamentary democracies. Although comparative studies on the topic exist, the collected data on policy-making power of opposition parties allows for a more detailed measure of such opposition power and the inclusion of a larger number of cases compared to existing research.

“Grasping at Straws: Procedures and Opposition Roles in Competitive Authoritarian Parliaments” (with Aurélien Evequoz, University of Geneva)
Recent research has emphasized the importance of nominally democratic institutions for the survival of authoritarian regimes. It is argued that autocratic leaders use institutions such as elected legislatures to co-opt opposition forces and thereby balance threats from groups within society. However, most scholars have focused on the presence of parliamentary institutions or elections in general, neglecting specific parliamentary rules as well as the micro-logic of cooptation. We argue that fully understanding the role of opposition parties in competitive authoritarian regimes and the extent to which they fulfill the expectations laid out in the cooptation theory requires detailed knowledge about how different parliamentary procedures are used. Focusing on Sub-Sahara Africa, we first present a comprehensive data collection effort on parliamentary rules in these regimes. We further analyze how opposition parties strategically use their right to submit questions to the government party.

“Much Ado about (Virtually) Nothing? Referendums as a Less-than Perfect Means of Aligning Elite and Voters in the Case of Switzerland, 1977-2018” (with Valentin Schröder, University of Bremen)
Congruence of political elite actions and the preferences of the electorate is constitutive for democracy. Elections are crucial in this respect since they foster alignment between both, through sanctioning divergence of elite action ex post. An even closer alignment might be achieved by an additional means of citizen participation, namely, referendums. Under a logic of sanctioning then, elite divergence from citizens’ preferences is punished even ex ante, via reputation costs inflicted on parts of the elite for even trying to diverge from the wishes of a majority of voters. Consequently, a large literature deals with the advantages of direct democratic institutions and whether such institutions lead to policies more in line with citizens’ preferences. Instances of elite-voter incongruence are then typically studied by comparing attitudes of citizens with positions of political parties as expressed in surveys or by experts.

We present an alternative way to look at referendums as a means for fostering elite-voter congruence. Arguing that representatives anticipate reputation costs inflicted on them by a referendum and adapt their policy proposals accordingly beforehand, we analyze the question whether direct democratic institutions indeed lead to policies that more closely reflect citizens’ preferences or whether decisions by representatives alone would have led to the same policy outcomes anyway. So we inquire into the immediate “added value” of direct democracy in terms of aligning policy more closely with the preferences of (a majority of) citizens than is the case under representative democracy proper. The point with referendums would then be their existence as an institution rather than their actual usage.

However, referendums have been held. So the above logic does not always hold empirically. This is why we also address the “added cost” of direct democracy, an issue that has received much less attention in the literature than the one of (gross) gains. These costs particularly concern variation in levels of participation in elections vs. referendums as a source of majorities at odds with each other over policy, even if indirectly.

The case of Switzerland grants the unique opportunity to explore the role referendums play as regards the relationship between citizens’ preferences as expressed at the ballot and elite actions as measured by legislators’ votes on the issues at stake in referendums. We employ a novel dataset covering all 348 Swiss national-level popular initiatives and referendums in the 40-year period 1977-2018 in order to gauge the degree to which decisions of representatives match the position of voters as expressed in referendum majorities, but also margins of majorities.

Research on international institutions
“Complexity and Compliance. How does the International Human Rights Regime Perform?” (with Cristiane Carneiro, University of Sao Paulo)
This project investigates the link between compliance and complexity, with respect to the international human rights regime. Common wisdom often associates high levels of regime complexity with protracted, delayed or short-of-full compliance. The multiple actors, institutions, and reflexivity that characterize complex regimes tend to compromise the efficient interpretation of commitments, which can lead to unintended and sometimes opportunistic behavior that does not conform to the regime. Contrary to expectations based on the common wisdom, we argue that dense regimes do not necessarily lead to less compliance and offer two explanations to account for this unexpected outcome.

More information on past projects.
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