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This study examines the extent to which opposition parties engage in wedge-issue competition. The literature on wedge-issue competition has exclusively focused on the two-party system in the United States, arguing that wedge issues are the domain of opposition parties. This study argues that within multiparty systems opposition status is a necessary but not sufficient condition for wedge-issue competition. Since parties within multiparty systems compete in the wake of past and dawn of future coalition negotiations, parties that are regularly part of a coalition are not likely to exploit wedge issues as it could potentially jeopardize relationships with future coalition partners. Conversely, it is less risky for parties that have never been part of a government coalition to mobilize wedge issues. These theoretical propositions are empirically substantiated by examining the attention given to the European integration issue between 1984 and 2010 within 14 Western European countries, utilizing pooled time-series regressions
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Exploiting the Cracks: Wedge Issues in Multiparty
Competition
Marc van de Wardt University of Amsterdam
Catherine E. De Vries University of Oxford
Sara B. Hobolt London School of Economics and Political Science
This study examines the extent to which opposition parties engage in wedge-issue competition. The literature on
wedge-issue competition has exclusively focused on the two-party system in the United States, arguing that wedge
issues are the domain of opposition parties. This study argues that within multiparty systems opposition status is
a necessary but not sufficient condition for wedge-issue competition. Since parties within multiparty systems
compete in the wake of past and dawn of future coalition negotiations, parties that are regularly part of a coalition
are not likely to exploit wedge issues as it could potentially jeopardize relationships with future coalition partners.
Conversely, it is less risky for parties that have never been part of a government coalition to mobilize wedge issues.
These theoretical propositions are empirically substantiated by examining the attention given to the European
integration issue between 1984 and 2010 within 14 Western European countries, utilizing pooled time-series
regressions.
1
The dynamics of issue competition is a key
topic for research on party competition (see,
e.g., Adams 2012; Carmines and Stimson
1989; Jones and Baumgartner 2005; Steenbergen
and Scott 2004). The struggle over attention is
crucial for parties’ success in elections because the
information-processing capacities of voters and
the media are limited. While approaches such as
the saliency theory by Budge and Farlie (1983) and
the issue ownership framework proposed by Petro-
cik (1996) suggest that the importance parties attach
to certain issues is more or less stable, recent studies
show that issue attention is a variable rather than
a constant in party competition (Damore 2004;
Stubager and Slothuus 2013).
What explains these dynamics in issue attention?
Although many factors might be considered to be
important, such as real-world events (Bernick and
Meyers 2012), public opinion (Hobolt and Klemmem-
sen 2008), parties’ organizational features (Schumacher,
De Vries, and Vis 2013), and competitor behavior
(Meguid 2005), this study explores the strategic use of
issue attention as a means of driving a wedge into
governing party platforms. The literature on issue
evolution and issue manipulation suggests that com-
petition between two rivals is characterized by the
efforts of the minority party to increase the importance
ofanissuethatismostlikelytosplitthemajority
coalition in order to sway voters in their favor. As
Schattschneider noted over 40 years ago, ‘‘the effort in
all political struggles is to exploit cracks in [one’s]
opposition while attempting to consolidate one’s own
side’’ (1960: 69–70).
However, most theoretical and empirical work
explaining the strategic use of divisive issues, so
called ‘‘wedge issues,’’ focuses exclusively on the
United States context in which the Democrats and
Republicans aim to exploit each other’s weak points
(see, e.g., Hillygus and Shields 2008; Jeong et al.
2011). This study expands our understanding
of wedge-issue competition by examining more
institutionally complex systems that are characterized
1
Marc van de Wardt and Catherine de Vries would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Netherlands Organization of
Scientific Research (NWO) as part of its program Conflict and Security [NWO 432-08-130]. An online appendix with supplementary
material for this article is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0022381614000565. Data and supporting materials necessary to
reproduce the numerical results will be made available at www.catherinedevries.eu.
The Journal of Politics, Vol. 76, No. 4, October 2014, Pp. 986–999 doi:10.1017/S0022381614000565
ÓSouthern Political Science Association, 2014 ISSN 0022-3816
986
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by coalition governments and multiparty competition.
We argue that coalition politics fundamentally alters
the nature of wedge-issue competition. While wedge-
issue competition is a tool of the opposition in two-
party systems, in multiparty systems only a subset of
opposition parties is likely to mobilize divisive issues
that could unseat the government. Coalition politics
constrains wedge-issue competition for some parts of
the opposition as parties always compete in the wake
of past and in the shadow of future coalition negotia-
tions. For mainstream opposition parties that rou-
tinely alternate between government and opposition,
wedge-issue competition could risk imperiling rela-
tionships with past and prospective coalition partners.
In contrast, wedge-issue competition involves far less
risk for challenger parties which have never partici-
pated in government coalitions, and such parties are
therefore more likely to mobilize wedge issues com-
pared to their mainstream counterparts in opposition.
These propositions are tested by examining the
dynamics of the attention to the European Union (EU)
issue. The EU issue constitutes an apposite case to study
wedge-issue competition comparatively because it
exemplifies a wedge issue par excellence within Western
European party systems. European integration is an
issue that is not easily integrated into the dominant
dimension of left-right politics, and therefore the pro-
cess of European integration has provoked deep ten-
sions within major parties on both the left and right
(Marks and Wilson 2000). Furthermore, by focusing on
the EU issue we can harness cross-temporal and cross-
national data from the Chapel Hill Expert Surveys
(henceforth CHES) on the degree of importance that
parties attach to the EU issue as well as the level of
dissent that governing parties experience. Because the
CHES contains data for 215 parties in 14 Western
European countries for the period between 1984 and
2010 (Bakker et al. 2012), we can examine the dynamics
of wedge-issue competition for a large number of
parties over time. Based on pooled time-series regres-
sions, our empirical results lend credence to the
proposition that within multiparty competition only
challenger parties with no government experience take
advantage of the dissent within government parties.
This indicates that coalition politics crucially shapes
wedge-issue competition in multiparty systems.
This study proceeds as follows. First, we outline
our theoretical framework and hypotheses. Next, we
discuss the case of the EU as a wedge issue. In
a subsequent step, we elaborate on the data and
empirical analysis. Fourth, we discuss our results,
and finally, we conclude by considering the implica-
tions for the study of party competition.
Theory and Hypotheses
The strategic mobilization of wedge issues lies at the
core of the theories of issue evolution and manipu-
lation developed by Carmines and Stimson (1989)
and Riker (1986) in the U.S. context. According to
the issue evolution framework, party competition
between two rivals is characterized by the efforts of
the minority to increase attention on policy issues
that destabilize the majority coalition (Carmines and
Stimson 1989). In the words of Riker, the opposi-
tion’s ‘‘fundamental heresthetical device is to divide
the majority with some new alternative’’ (1986, ix).
There are two key characteristics of wedge issues.
First, it is an issue that cannot easily be subsumed by
the dominant dimension of contestation in a party
system. Second, a wedge issue has the potential
to bring about rifts in party platforms that can
destabilize a governing party or a government
coalition. In most advanced industrial democracies,
the left-right dimension constitutes the dominant
axis of competition (Pierce 1999). It acts as the focal
point for parties and coalition formation, and it is an
important heuristic for voters and party activists
when they decide which party best serves their
interests. At its core, the left-right dimension is
concerned with conflicting preferences on redistribu-
tion and on the role of the state in regulating the
economy (e.g., Warwick 2002). The left-right di-
mension functions as an overarching ideological
dimension that encompasses a number of different
issues. However, some issues cannot easily be
integrated into a left-right system of values. One
clear example of this is the European integration
issue. This lack of fit has resulted in unusual patterns
of party competition in a number of countries, where
parties on both the left and right extremes advocate
an anti-EU position, while centrist parties are pre-
dominantly pro-European (see Marks and Wilson
2000). Another increasingly salient issue that cannot
easily be subsumed by the dominant left-right
dimension is the immigration issue. Parties on the
left are often torn between the preferences of their
traditional working-class base, which is often weary
of immigration, and the better educated middle-class
partisans who favor liberal immigration policies
(see, e.g., Hainmueller and Hiscox 2007). An example
of this can be seen in Danish party competition where
the Social Liberals are on the right of the Social
Democrats on the left-right dimension but advocate
less restrictive immigration policies (Green-Pedersen
and Krogstrup 2008). In other party systems, this
exploiting the cracks 987
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‘‘lack of fit’’ may be less obvious in party competition
since mainstream parties will seek to avoid mobiliz-
ing wedge issues that have the potential to drive
a wedge between factions in a party or between
parties in a coalition. This does not alter the fact,
however, that the immigration issue cannot easily be
subsumed by the left-right dimension. This is further
reflected by a recent trend that Western European
radical-right parties like the Danish People’s Party
and the Dutch Freedom Party have started to
combine right-wing immigration positions with wel-
fare chauvinism (i.e., a leftwing position on tradi-
tional left-right issues) (see, e.g., Rydgren 2004).
How can an issue that poorly fits the left-right
dimension destabilize a government party or
coalition internally? According to Schattschneider,
a party should be seen as ‘‘a coalition of inferior
interests held together by a dominant interest’’ (1960,
69–70). Established political parties have long-stand-
ing links to constituencies and issue agendas that
structure the positions that leaders and activists take
on given issues. Party positioning on the left-right
dimension links parties to voters and unites various
factions within the party and guides their responses
to new issues (see Jeong et al. 2011; Pierce 1999). Due
to these constraints, new issues that enter party
competition may jeopardize parties’ internal cohe-
sion and carry a degree of risk. A party may become
split between those party members agreeing with
their party leadership on the new issue and those
who do not. The extent of the risk crucially depends
on the degree to which new issues fit the left-right
dimension. If an issue can be straightforwardly in-
corporated, there is no reason why its mobilization
would present a risk for established parties. A threat
arises when preferences are distributed over two, or
more, dimensions, as no party position can ever beat
all possible alternatives in a two-way vote, and as
such, every party platform is vulnerable. This vulner-
ability stems from the fact that in a two-dimensional
space, winning coalitions must consist of voters and
politicians who are in conflict on at least one di-
mension (Jeong et al. 2011; McKelvey and Schofield
1987). When an issue that is partially or entirely
unrelated to the left-right dimension is mobilized,
this creates tensions for parties that compete on the
left-right dimension (Marks and Wilson 2000). In the
U.S. context, consider for example the issue of race in
the 1950s and 1960s that divided the governing
Democratic Party. As much as President Kennedy
tried to downplay the issue, pressure from the civil
rights movement eventually led the Democrats to
sponsor the Civil Rights Act. Consequently, not only
the votes of many disgruntled southerners were up
for grabs, but the issue also caused considerable
disagreement within the party (Jeong et al. 2011).
Issues that cannot easily be subsumed in the left-
right dimension may also foster intracoalition dissent.
Parties tend to form coalitions along the dominant
left-right dimension. Hence, it is in the interest of
coalition parties to avoid issues that do not align with
this dimension (see also Van der Brug and Van Spanje
2009). This explains why, for instance, the Danish
mainstream right refrained from politicizing the
immigration issue when governing with the Social
Liberals. Even though politicization was electorally
tempting, this issue divided the coalition since the
Social Liberals and the Social Democrats held
different positions on immigration (Green-Pedersen
and Krogstrup 2008).
The extant literature has focused on two ways in
which such wedge issues can be exploited: a voter-
centered and a party-centered perspective. The first
focuses on the potential for parties to take advantage
of the fact that voters are often cross pressured by
narrowly targeting cross-pressured voters on ‘‘an issue
they care about’’ while making them ‘‘believe that
their own party candidate will ignore the policy or
move it in the wrong direction if elected’’ (Hillygus
and Shields 2008, 38). The second perspective is party-
centered and focuses on potential for internal divisions
within parties on an issue where party leaders and
activists or different factions of a party may hold
different views. According to both of these perspec-
tives, the ultimate goal of the strategic use of wedge
issues is partisan realignment, a situation in which
voters of the majority coalition change their loyalty on
the basis of the issue and defect to the minority party
(Carmines and Stimson 1989; Hillygus and Shields
2008; Jeong et al. 2011). In this article, we follow the
classic party-centered conceptualization of a wedge
issue, not least since the practice of using communi-
cation tools to target specific voters to emphasize
particular divisive issues is much less widespread
outside the U.S. campaign context.
The expectation that parties in opposition are the
initiators of wedge-issue competition is derived from
theoretical approaches specifically applied to the U.S.
two-party system. To date, hardly any scholarly atten-
tion has been devoted to the dynamics of wedge-issue
competition in systems with multiparty competition.
This is surprising given the fact that the number of
possible wedge issues that parties can exploit is likely
far greater in multiparty systems due to the greater
dimensional complexity that arises when multiple
parties compete for office, policy, and votes (Schofield
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and Sened 2006; Stokes 1963). While our study builds
on theoretical work on wedge issues developed in the
U.S. context, we extend this literature in two important
ways. First, we expand the theoretical framework to
a multiparty setting with coalition governments, where
we consider not just divisions within parties but also
between parties within governing coalitions. Second,
by incorporating the logic of coalition formation into
our theoretical framework, we arrive at a fundamen-
tally different expectation about when it is advanta-
geous for opposition parties to engage in wedge-issue
competition.
Two Types of Wedge-Issue Competition
Given that coalition governments are the norm in
multiparty systems (Hobolt and Karp 2010), opposi-
tion parties can mobilize two types of wedge issues:
those driving a wedge between the different parties in
government and those that are divisive within a gov-
ernment party. Intracoalition wedge-issue competition
refers to raising the attention of an issue about which
government parties disagree, while intraparty wedge-
issue competition relates to exploiting divisions within
government party platforms.
In the coalition bargaining process, parties will-
ing to join a government coalition must always make
policy compromises in exchange for office benefits
(Laver and Schofield 1998). As a result, the policy
positions of the individual parties usually vary
around the general position taken by the coalition.
By definition, then, there is always some degree of
conflict between coalition partners that parties in the
opposition could mobilize to destabilize the govern-
ment coalition by engaging in intracoalition wedge-
issue competition. However, it might be equally
attractive for opposition parties to focus on internal
divisions within government parties, that is, tensions
between party leadership and activists or different
factions within a party. Party activists are likely to
care strongly about their party’s policies as they
commit their time, money, and effort with the aim
of voicing a specific ideological view. Compared to
party leaders, party activists are less willing to
sacrifice the pursuit of policy ideas for the spoils of
office given that their participation in the party is
primarily based on the party’s policy platform or
collective identity (Panebianco 1988; Schumacher,
De Vries, and Vis 2013). When parties enter coalitions,
the internal tensions between party leadership and
activists are likely to come to the surface. Given these
divisions, parties in opposition may reap electoral
benefits by increasing the importance of issues that
internally divide government parties—a process that
we term intraparty wedge-issue competition.
While wedge-issue competition constitutes an
attractive strategy for the opposition to improve its
electoral standing, the opposite is true for governing
parties. Obviously governing parties have no incentive
to mobilize issues that divide their own ranks or the
party organizations of coalition partners, as such efforts
would undermine their collaboration. It may very well
bethecasethattosomeextent,governingparties
simply cannot contain the attention given to divisive
issues as they can be held accountable due to their
position in power (Green-Pedersen and Mortensen
2010). Yet, we expect opposition parties to more
strongly emphasize wedge issues compared with gov-
erning parties themselves, as only the opposition
benefits from mobilizing wedge issues. This proposi-
tion leads us to formulate the following hypotheses
about wedge-issue competition in multiparty systems:
H1 (Intracoalition Wedge-Issue Hypothesis): In compar-
ison to governing parties, parties in opposition are
more likely to raise the salience of issues causing
divisions between governing parties, all else being equal
H2 (Intraparty Wedge-Issue Hypothesis): In comparison
to governing parties, parties in opposition are more
likely to raise the salience of issues causing divisions
within governing parties, all else being equal.
Wedge-Issue Competition as Risk or
Opportunity
Intracoalition or intraparty wedge-issue competition
may not only bring about rewards in the form of
electoral gains or government destabilization but may
also entail considerable risk for opposition parties.
Mobilizing divisive issues could potentially backfire,
and parties could alienate parts of their own elector-
ate and upset existing linkages with key societal
groups. Hence, by highlighting a wedge issue in order
to attract disaffected voters from other parties, a party
may simultaneously alienate some segments of their
core constituents (Jeong et al. 2011; Strøm, Budge,
and Laver 1994). Indeed, Carmines and Stimson
argue that the way in which former Republican
presidential candidate Barry Goldwater used race as
a wedge issue was a ‘‘gamble by a politician who
could already anticipate defeat’’ and ‘‘probably
did the 1969 Republicans more harm than good’’
(1989, 188).
We argue that wedge-issue competition within
multiparty systems entails even greater risk. Here
parties are competing with each other in the wake of
past coalition agreements and in the dawn of future
exploiting the cracks 989
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coalition bargaining, since they generally need to
cooperate to secure office and enact policy. As a result,
it is important to distinguish between different types
of opposition parties in multiparty systems since not
all parties in opposition are expected to engage in
wedge-issue competition to the same degree. Specifi-
cally, we differentiate between mainstream opposition
parties and challenger parties (see also De Vries and
Hobolt 2012), as they differ in their strategic consid-
erations based on previous coalition experiences and
future coalition bargaining expectations. Mainstream
opposition parties, who frequently alternate between
government and opposition, are likely to be rather
cautious when it comes to wedge-issue competition.
Given that previous research has shown that parties
may be punished for their past behavior in coalition
negotiations (Tavits 2008), we expect mainstream
opposition parties to refrain from both intracoalition
and intraparty wedge-issue competition in order to
circumvent potential punishment from past or future
coalition partners.
Quite the contrary holds true for challenger
parties which due to their lack of coalition experience
are not constrained by relationships with former
coalition partners. What is more, the chances of
challengers being part of future governing coalitions
are rather slim. Research demonstrates that past
governing experience is one of the important deter-
minants of prospective coalition membership as it
reduces the uncertainty for potential partners about
the way a party will behave once in office. In the
words of Warwick, situations of government forma-
tion do not ‘‘represent a totally new start’’ but should
be seen as ‘‘an iterated game’’ (1996, 499) in which
past experience matters. As a result, challenger parties
have every reason to exploit the cracks within and
between the platforms of government parties, while
this may be simply too costly for mainstream
opposition parties. This leads us to the formulation
of our last hypothesis:
H3 (Challenger Party Wedge-Issue Hypothesis): Parties
that have never been part of a government coalition are
the most likely to exploit the divisions between and
within governing parties, all else being equal.
The European Union as a Wedge
Issue
Our theoretical framework applies to a broad set of
issues that meet our criteria of a ‘‘wedge issue’’, i.e.,
issues that cannot be easily subsumed in the left-right
dimension and that have the potential to split
mainstream party platforms. We test our expect-
ations in Western Europe as this allows us to examine
wedge-issue competition within a set of stable and
democratic multiparty systems over three decades.
The literature on Western European party competi-
tion has identified several issues that constitute wedge
issues, such as European integration and immigration
(see Green-Pedersen and Krogstup 2008; Kriesi et al.
2006; Marks and Wilson 2000; Meguid 2005; Taggart
1998). Ideally, we would test our hypotheses by looking
at more than a single wedge issue. Yet, comparative
data on parties’ internal divisions only exist for the EU
issue, and as a consequence, we focus our data analysis
on this issue.
Focusing on European integration has the
advantage that, according to scholars of party politics,
it is one of the clearest examples of a wedge issue in
contemporary European party systems (Evans 1998;
Taggart 1998; Usherwood 2002). It is an issue that
cannot easily be subsumed by the dominant left-right
dimension of contestation. Instead, parties on the
far-left and far-right tend to be most opposed to
further integration, resulting in an ‘‘inverted U-curve’’
relationship between party positions on the left-right
dimension and their positions on the European
integration issue. While other wedge issues may not
share the exact same ‘‘inverted U-curve’’ relationship,
they share the fundamental characteristic that they
cannot easily be incorporated into the dominant left-
right dimension and thus threaten to divide parties
and coalitions internally.
The EU issue has been described as a major
‘‘touchstone of dissent’’ with a clear potential to
divide governing parties and coalitions (see especially
Taggart 1998 and Usherwood 2002). As the power of
the EU’s supranational institutions has increased and
the scope of EU jurisdictional authority has widened,
European integration has become ever more con-
tested within domestic politics, and this has also led
to tensions within parties on both the left and the
right (De Vries 2007; Hobolt 2009; Marks and Wilson
2000). As an example, Conservative and right-wing
Liberal parties, such as the British Conservatives and
Dutch Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD),
tend to favor market integration in Europe, but they
oppose the transfer of authority to supranational
actors in other policy areas. For the Dutch Liberals,
these internal divisions prompted Geert Wilders’
successful split from the VVD and the creation
of the Eurosceptic Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV)
(Van der Pas, De Vries, and Van der Brug 2013).
The issue of European integration has been equally
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divisive for parties of the left. For Socialist parties,
economic integration in Europe is often seen to
jeopardize nation-wide socialist achievements ‘‘by
intensifying international economic competition
and undermining Keynesian responses to it’’ (Marks
and Wilson 2000, 437). At the same time, however,
further political integration in Europe offers an
opportunity to regulate labor markets and advance
social equality and to introduce what Margaret
Thatcher once called ‘‘Socialism creeping in through
the back door.’’
2
Hence, while our data analysis below focuses on
the European integration issue, our theoretical prop-
ositions could be applied to a broader set of issues
that meet the criteria of a ‘‘wedge issue.’’ The
literature on immigration, for instance, lends cre-
dence to our main hypotheses concerning the nature
of wedge-issue competition in multiparty systems. To
use the example of the Netherlands, over the last
decades, Dutch political competition has been trans-
formed by a mobilization of immigration by chal-
lenger parties. Dutch mainstream parties have been
reluctant to engage in debate on this issue due to
internal disagreements on which position to adopt,
but from the early 2000s, immigration became a very
salient component of Dutch party competition
mainly due to the campaign skills of the right-wing
political entrepreneur Pim Fortuyn (Adams, De Vries,
and Leitner 2012; Pellikaan, De Lange, and Van der
Meer 2007). Pim Fortuyn and his party skillfully
exploited the rifts that the immigration issue had
caused within the parties of the political mainstream.
Following Pim Fortuyn’s death, Geert Wilders and his
newly formed PVV continued this anti-immigrant and
anti-Islam rhetoric. This example highlights the
importance of challenger parties in wedge-issue com-
petition. Due to their lack of government experience,
these parties can afford to exploit divisions within
government parties.
Data, Operationalization, and
Estimation Technique
To examine which parties mobilize wedge issues, we
have compiled a longitudinal and cross-national
dataset containing information on the attention
given to the European integration issue at the party
level as well as the degree of dissent within and
between government parties. For the necessary data
on political parties, we relied on the several rounds
of CHES (Bakker et al. 2012; Hooghe et al. 2010; Ray
1999, Steenbergen and Marks 2007), allowing us to
include all Western European countries except for
Luxembourg that did not feature in the survey.
Because we expect perceptions about future coali-
tion bargaining to shape the likelihood of wedge-
issue mobilization, we also included countries in the
sample that have few or no prior experience with
government coalition rule.
3,4
The CHES measures
expert evaluations of national political parties
regarding the importance parties attach to European
integration, the degree of internal party dissent on
European integration, party positioning on Euro-
pean integration and the left-right dimension, as
well as the number of votes that parties received in
previous elections. Several studies have compared
the CHES expert-based estimates with other data
sources such as the Comparative Manifesto Project
(CMP) and voter placements of party positions and
have found that they provide valid and reliable meas-
urements of party characteristics (Marks et al. 2007;
Netjes and Binnema 2007; Ray 1999; Steenbergen and
Marks 2007).
5
Wedge-issue mobilization is operationalized as
the salience that a party publicly assigns to a given
wedge issue.
6
Our dependent variable is therefore
2
Party conference speech in Brighton on 14 October 1988, see
http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/107352.
3
The postcommunist countries were excluded from the sample
for reasons of data availability and comparability; see, for
example, Bakke and Sitter (2005) who report highly unstable
patterns of party competition in the first decade of democracy in
postcommunist countries.
4
We arrived at the same substantial conclusions, however, when
countries were only included after their first experience with
a coalition government since World War II (see the online
appendix).
5
Netjes and Binnema (2007) have cross-validated CHES place-
ments of EU issue salience with estimates from the Comparative
Manifesto Project and European Election Studies and have found
that a common dimension underlies the three measures. In terms
of construct validity, the CHES measures even outperform other
measures.
6
We conceptualize wedge-issue competition in terms of mobili-
zation only and do not include a positional component. While
this implies that a party always raises the salience of an issue that
is divisive within or between governing parties, it can do so by
taking either a pro- or an anti-issue stance. Regarding the specific
case of European integration examined in this study, it is fair to
say that we find more challenger parties that mobilize an anti-EU
stance, such as the UK Independence Party. Yet, some challenger
parties in our sample also mobilize a pro-EU stance like the
Austrian or Dutch Greens, for example. What all these parties
have in common is that they were never part of government
coalitions and that they therefore are largely unconstrained in
mobilizing wedge issues.
exploiting the cracks 991
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measured as the importance that a party attaches to
the European integration issue, and it is derived from
the CHES question concerning the relative impor-
tance of European integration in the party’s public
stance. Because the number of response categories for
this question varied across different rounds of the
CHES, all measures were harmonized to a 4-point
scale ranging from 1 (European integration is of no
importance) to 4 (European integration is of great
importance).
7
Our first key independent variable, dissent
between government parties (intracoalition dissent),
was constructed by calculating the weighted standard
deviation of all the EU positions of the individual
government parties (see the supplementary online
appendix). Vote shares were used as weights since
electorally successful parties have a larger say about
the contents of government policy, as reflected
for example by their greater likelihood to be
‘‘formateurs’’ in the formation process (Warwick
1996). Consistently, their deviations from the co-
alition mean should contribute more to the overall
magnitude of interparty dispersion as these parties
are expected to make fewer policy compromises in
return for office.
8
In turn, our second key independent variable,
dissent regarding European integration within gov-
ernment parties (intraparty dissent),
9
is based on
a CHES item indicating the level of internal conflict
between the party leadership and party activists.
10
We
computed an aggregated measure for the whole
government coalition by taking the sum of the intra-
party dissent scores of the individual government
parties weighted again according to their vote shares
obtained in the latest national election.
11
Weights were
normalized so they sum up to 1. The dissent scores of
larger parties should have a greater impact on the
overall coalition mean as challenger parties could gain
more votes by exploiting the internal dissent within
parties with larger vote shares. In addition, it may be
easier to destabilize a coalition by exploiting wedges
within major parties rather than smaller coalition
members.
12
For both measures of dissent, it was necessary to
establish whether a party was a member of govern-
ment in a certain year. A party was operationalized as
a government party if it governed for more than six
months in that year, while all the remaining parties
were coded as opposition parties.
13
We differentiate
between two types of opposition parties: challenger
parties, which had never taken part in a government
coalition since 1945 as of the specific year under
investigation, and mainstream opposition parties,
which had been in government at some point over
that same period.
14
For example, the Popular Party
in Spain is classified as a challenger from 1984 (the
starting point of our analysis) until 1996. In that year
(i.e., 1996), it gained control over the government for
the first time. When it returned to opposition in 2004,
it was classified as a mainstream opposition party.
We also include several variables tapping into
alternative explanations of the importance of the
European integration issue for parties. First, it is
important to control for a party’s own level of dissent
on the issue. Previous research has shown that parties
lower the importance of the European integration
issue if internal conflict exists between the party
leadership and activists (Steenbergen and Scott
2004). Moreover, mainstream parties in particular
are prone to experience party infighting on the EU
issue (Evans 1998; Taggart 1998), and as such, this
variable needs to be held constant to ensure that
coalition aspirations explain wedge-issue mobilization
rather than systemic differences between mainstream
7
We collapsed the fourth and fifth categories of the 1984–99 data
together in one category because these categories are equivalent
to the maximum score that was used in later rounds.
8
Additional analyses based on an unweighted standard deviation
produced similar results (see the online appendix).
9
For every round of CHES, the intraparty dissent variable was
harmonized to a range from 0, complete unity, to 6, leadership
position opposed by the majority of party activists.
10
Hooghe et al. (2010) report satisfactory reliability scores on the
intraparty dissent placements for Western Europe. The standard
deviation (0.18 in 2002, 0.15 in 2006) of expert placements on
dissent mimics those reported for EU positions (0.13 in 2002,
0.14 in 2006). This is quite a remarkable result given that
intraparty dissent is a more abstract phenomenon. To be
confident that dissent placements do not partly result from
salience placements or vice versa, we also replicated our analyses
with lagged values of intraparty (and intracoalition) dissent and
an alternative EU salience measure derived from the CMP for the
year after each CHES round was collected. Both analyses lead to
the same substantial conclusions (see the online appendix).
11
The parties’ 1984–2006 vote shares were derived from the
CHES, while 2010 vote shares were obtained from the Parlgov
database (D¨
oring and Manow 2010).
12
An additional analysis in which we did not weight the
governing parties’ intraparty dissent scores produced similar
results (see the online appendix).
13
Government-opposition membership was coded on the basis of
the ‘‘ParlGov database’’ (D¨
oring and Manow 2010).
14
The online appendix provides an overview of the challenger
parties that were included in our dataset and an explanation of
how our definition of challenger parties differs from the well-
known classification of niche parties (Adams et al. 2006; Meguid
2005).
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opposition and challenger parties in internal dissent.
Second, political parties may increase the importance
of new issue dimensions such as European integra-
tion when they are further removed from the mean
voter on the left-right dimension. Their disadvanta-
geous position on the dominant dimension of con-
flict implies a ceiling in terms of votes and a clear
incentive to introduce alternative issues that advance
their standing within the electorate (see De Vries and
Hobolt 2012).
15
Finally, consistent with previous
studies, we controlled for the size of the party
measured by the percentage of votes it received in
the latest national election. Larger parties may have
greater organizational capacities to highlight a larger
range of policy issues (De Vries and Van de Wardt
2010).
16
We treat the data as pooled time-series data and
define political parties as the cross-sectional units
that vary over time, in this case, over the various
rounds of the CHES. Taking into consideration that
political parties are nested within different countries,
we added country dummies to the equation to
manage the unobserved differences between coun-
tries. Following the framework of Pl¨
umper and his
colleagues (2005), we combined panel-corrected
standard errors (PCSE) with a Prais-Winsten trans-
formation. This procedure allowed us to address
panel heteroskedasticity (i.e., different variances in
error terms across parties), contemporaneous corre-
lation (i.e., possible correlation in the error of party i
at time t with the error of party jat time t), and serial
correlation (i.e., the complications that arise when
errors tend to be dependent from one period to the
next within parties). Tests indicated that each type
of correlation was indeed present in the data.
17
A common alternative for dealing with serial corre-
lation is the inclusion of a lagged dependent variable
on the right-hand side of the equation (Beck and Katz
1995). Yet, more recent work recommends the Prais-
Winsten solution, which we used to address the panel
specific AR(1) error structure, as a lagged dependent
variable absorbs a large part of the trend in the
dependent variable and likely biases the estimates
(Achen 2000; Greene 1990; Pl¨
umper, Troeger, and
Manow 2005). Finally, by means of tests we ensured
that the dependent and independent variables were
stationary (Asteriou and Hall 2007).
18
Model Specification
The Intracoalition Wedge Issue (H1) and Intraparty
Wedge Issue (H2) hypotheses posit that opposition
parties are more likely than governing parties to raise
the importance of the EU issue in case of disagree-
ment between or within government parties. To test
these propositions, we estimated a multiple regres-
sion model containing the following core-model
specification:
(1) Importance Party A
t
5b
o
1b
1
(Dissent between
GPs
t
)1b
2
(Dissent within GPs
t
)1b
3
(CP
t
)1
b
4
(MOP
t
)1b
5
(CP
t
*Dissent between GPs
t
)1
b
6
(CP
t
*Dissent within GPs
t
)1b
7
(MOP
t
* Dis-
sent between GPs
t
)1b
8
(MOP
t
*Dissent within
GPs
t
)1controls 1e
where:
Importance Party A
t
5The level of importance party
A attaches to the EU issue in the current year.
Dissent between GPs
t
5The level of positional dis-
agreement between governing parties on the EU in the
current year.
Dissent within GPs
t
5The level of intraparty dissent on
the EU within governing parties in the current year.
CP
t
51 if party A is in opposition and has never
governed since 1945, 0 if otherwise.
MOP
t
51 if party A is in opposition and has previously
governed since 1945, 0 if otherwise.
The dependent variable denotes the level of impor-
tance a party attaches to European integration in
a given year. Because of the presence of interaction
terms in the equation, b
1
and b
2
capture the effects
of dissent between and within governing parties,
respectively, on their own emphasis of the issue.
15
The mean voter left-right position was calculated from Euro-
barometer data on the self-reported left-right positions of
respondents on a discrete 1 (left) to 10 (right) scale. Hence,
before generating a measure of Euclidian distance, we first
rescaled the parties’ left–right positions to a 1–10 scale.
16
We also included the interaction between internal dissent and
party type, the extremity of a party’s EU position, and the
(effective) number of parties operating in a legislature as controls
to our analysis. These analyses (see the online appendix) yield
essentially the same results.
17
We used the Woolridge (1999) test for serial correlation,
a modified Wald statistic to detect panel heteroskedasticity
(Greene 1990), and the Pesaran (2004) test for contemporaneous
correlation.
18
Because we analyze unbalanced panel data for which conven-
tional unit root tests are unavailable, we regressed each variable
on its lagged value and controlled for the unit fixed effects. Using
F-tests, we further examined whether we could reject the null
hypothesis that the coefficient of the lagged dependent variable
was equal or larger than 1 as the latter provides evidence in favor
of a nonstationary process (Pl¨
umper and Neumayer 2006).
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The sum of b
11
b
5
denotes the likelihood that
challenger parties exploit disagreement between
government parties, while the sum of b
21
b
6
denotes
their proclivity for taking advantage of divisions
within government parties. By the same logic, the
sums of b
11
b
7
and b
21
b
8
denote the likelihood
that mainstream opposition parties exploit both types
of divisions. Consequently, Hypothesis 1 is confirmed
in the case of positive significant effects of b
5
and b
7
,
as we expect parties in opposition to be more likely
than governing parties to raise the salience of issues
dividing a coalition. In turn, positive statistically
significant effects of b
6
and b
8
confirm Hypothesis
2. Recall that in accordance with the Challenger Party
Wedge-Issue Hypothesis (H3), we expect challenger
parties to be most likely to engage in either intra-
coalition or intraparty wedge-issue competition.
Therefore, we expect b
5
and b
6
to be of a considerably
greater magnitude than b
7
and b
8.
Finally, note that due to list-wise deletion, the
model specification described above excludes all
single party government cases because divisions
between government parties can only be calculated
for years in which at least two parties were governing.
Since our expectations regarding intraparty wedge-
issue competition (H2) also apply to single party
governments, we carried out an additional analysis
(i.e., a model excluding the terms associated with
b
1,
b
5
and b
7
) to evaluate this hypothesis on the basis
of all cases.
Empirical Results
Table 1 displays the results of this study. Model 1
simultaneously explores our three hypotheses, while
model 2 presents the results for the Intraparty Wedge-
Issue Hypothesis (H2) on the basis of all cases
(including single party governments).
The insignificant main effect (b 5.037) of
intracoalition dissent in model 1 lends credence to
the idea that parties in government are unlikely to
focus on issues that cause divisions within their
coalition. When we turn to our findings for the
Intracoalition Wedge-Issue Hypothesis (H1),model 1
shows that the interactions between the level of
intracoalition dissent on the EU and being a main-
stream opposition (b 5.038) or challenger party
(2.033) are statistically insignificant. Thus, in con-
trast to our Intracoalition Wedge-Issue Hypothesis
(H1), we find that opposition parties are not more
likely than governing parties themselves to raise the
salience of the EU issue in case of divisions between
coalition partners.
Turning to the Intraparty Wedge-Issue Hypothesis
(H2), the insignificant main effect of dissent within
governing parties in both model 1 (2.026) and
2 (.027) provides additional evidence that governing
parties are unlikely to call attention to wedge issues.
More importantly, however, the statistical signifi-
cance and positive sign of the interaction effects
between the level of dissent within governing parties
and being a challenger party (b 5.224 in model 1) or
a mainstream opposition party (b 5.089 in model 1)
suggests that parties in opposition exploit issues that
drive a wedge within government parties. However,
the size of the coefficient for challenger parties is
TABLE 1 Pooled-Time Series Regressions
Explaining the Salience Attached to
European Integration by Parties
Model 1 Model 2
b/pcse b/pcse
Constant 2.829*
(.059)
2.749*
(.051)
Challenger party (CP) -.501*
(.057)
-.432*
(.046)
Mainstream Opposition Party (MOP) -.258*
(.065)
-.129*
(.048)
Dissent between GPs .037
(.025)
CP*dissent between GPs -.033
(.044)
MOP*dissent between GPs .038
(.04)
Dissent within GPs -.026
(.031)
.027
(.027)
CP*dissent within GPs .224*
(.035)
.147*
(.029)
MOP*dissent within GPs .089*
(.036)
.04
(.033)
Intraparty dissent -.091*
(.014)
-.109*
(.012)
Distance to mean voter left-right -.008*
(.002)
-.008*
(.002)
Party size .003*
(.001)
.006*
(.001)
N 538 777
Note: Prais-Winsten regression coefficients (b) with panel-
corrected standard errors (pcse) and country dummies (not
shown in table). CP 5Challenger Party; MOP 5Mainstream
Opposition Party; GPs 5Government Parties. The dependent
variable captures the salience of European integration at the
party level. *p,.05 (two-tailed tests).
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more than twice the size of that for mainstream
opposition parties, indicating that parties who have
never taken part in coalitions are most likely to
exploit internal rifts within government parties.
Moreover, only the challenger*dissent interaction
remains statistically significant (b 5.147) when
single-party governments are added to the analysis
in model 2. The effect for mainstream opposition
parties (b 5.04) in model 2 dwindles and becomes
insignificant. These results suggest that wedge-issue
competition is most pronounced among challenger
parties who exploit the rifts within rather than
between government parties.
19
Overall, the findings
provide full support for the Challenger Wedge-Issue
Hypothesis (H3), positing that challenger parties are
most likely to engage in wedge-issue competition,
rather than for Hypothesis 2, which states that all
opposition parties would do so.
Recall that our hypotheses focus on the differ-
ences between parties in terms of their likelihood of
engaging in wedge-issue competition, implying that
simply testing the significance of the interactions
suffices to evaluate the hypotheses. Nevertheless,
the substantive effects are also interesting to
explore. To look at the substantive effects, we use
the formula proposed by Brambor and his col-
leagues (2006). Figure 1A shows that mainstream
opposition parties increase their attention to the
EU issue by .07 (p,.001) in response to a one-
unit increase in dissent within government parties. In
turn, the marginal effect is more than twice as high for
challenger parties (b 5.17, p,.001). This again
confirms that they are the most likely candidates to
engage in intraparty wedge-issue competition. Fur-
thermore, as can also be inferred from the regression
model, the confidence bounds of the marginal effects
reconfirm that only the coefficient for challenger
parties significantly differs from the slope for govern-
ing parties.
In turn, Figure 1B plots the marginal effect of
partytypeonEUissuesalienceacrosstherangeof
sample values of dissent within governing parties.
Even though our theoretical propositions exclusively
concern the manner in which party type moderates
the likelihood of engaging in wedge-issue competi-
tion, we follow Berry and his coauthors (2012) and
also show how the effect of Z (party type) varies with
X (dissent). Note that positive values on the y-axis
denote that mainstream opposition or challenger
parties emphasize the EU issue more than governing
parties, while negative values indicate the opposite.
As such, the lower intercept for challenger parties
means that these parties initially attach the lowest
degree of importance to the EU issue. This might
seem surprising, but it should be stressed that being
a challenger, i.e., never having governed, does not
necessarily imply that a party has an inherent
interest in mobilizing the EU issue. The results
suggest quite the contrary, namely that the EU is
a typical issue for mainstream parties, may they be
in government or in opposition. The overlapping
confidence bounds show that challenger parties
bridge the gap with governing parties when govern-
ment intraparty dissent is about 2.5 (230 cases), and
when dissent is equal to or larger than 3.9 (22 cases),
their issue salience becomes significantly higher. The
marginal effects on the basis of model 1, depicted in
Figure 1C, even provide evidence that the issue
salience of challengers is already significantly higher
than that of governing parties when dissent is
around 2.9 (80 cases). In turn, the fact that the
confidence intervals for mainstream opposition
parties include the zero-line in both figures demon-
strates that these parties will never put greater
emphasis on the EU issue than governing parties
regardless of the level of dissent experienced by the
latter. More important than the absolute level of
salience at which parties ultimately arrive, however,
is that in line with our theoretical predictions,
challenger parties increase the salience of the EU
issue when the divisions within governing parties
increase, whereas this effect is not robust for
mainstream opposition parties. The fact that chal-
lengers attach the lowest salience to the EU when
there is low dissent within governing parties con-
vincingly shows that, in line with our theory of
wedge-issue competition, these parties mobilize the
issue for strategic reasons and not because of an
inherent ideological interest in the EU issue.
In the case of the control variables, we find
a negative effect for the distance to the mean voter
on the left-right dimension (b 52.008) as well as for
intraparty dissent (b 52.091). The latter finding is
consistent with previous studies that have demon-
strated that parties experiencing greater levels of
dissent put less emphasis on the EU issue (De Vries
and Van de Wardt 2010; Netjes and Binnema 2007;
Steenbergen and Scott 2004). Finally, the evidence
suggests that parties raise the salience of the EU issue
19
Jackknife analyses (see the online appendix) also indicated that
the interaction for mainstream opposition parties in model 1 is
not robust against the exclusion of individual countries, parties,
or elections, whereas the results reported for challenger parties
are robust against these tests.
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in response to increases in party size (b 5.003)
which is also in line with previous work (Netjes and
Binnema 2007).
Discussion
All party alignments contain the seeds of their own
destruction. The various groups that make up the party
may be united on some issues. [ ... ] But lurking just
below the surface a myriad of potential issues divides
the party. [ ... ] Disequilibrium may only be one issue
away. (Carmines and Stimson 1989, 9)
The above quote captures the idea that the di-
mensionality of party competition is unlikely to be
a stable equilibrium as issues that split existing party
alignments virtually always surface. As competition
among parties almost inevitably comprises more than
one issue, parties currently in the minority have
a strategic incentive to highlight issue concerns that
divide the party platform of the majority. While
existing work on wedge-issue mobilization stems
nearly exclusively from the U.S. two-party context in
which the Democrats and Republicans aim to exploit
each other’s weak points (Carmines and Stimson 1989;
Jeong et al. 2011), this study examines the mobiliza-
tion of divisive issues within more institutionally
complex systems characterized by more than two
parties and coalition governments. We explore if
parties in opposition highlight issues that drive a wedge
within the platforms of governing parties or between
the different parties that make up a government
coalition.
Our results yield strong support for the intuition
that wedge-issue competition focuses on exploiting
the cracks within the party platforms of governing
parties (Jeong et al. 2011). This is in line with the U.S.
FIGURE 1 Marginal Effect Plots
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literature on wedge-issue competition thus far. Our
theory and findings also go beyond the extant
literature, however, as we show that wedge-issue
mobilization is not a strategy that is used by all
opposition parties in multiparty systems; rather,
wedge issue mobilization is primarily used by those
who have never been part of government coalitions.
These findings suggest that the context in which
parties operate should be taken into account in future
work on wedge-issue competition beyond the two-
party context.
Interestingly, we find that these challenger parties
only mobilize the divisions within party platforms and
not between different coalition partners. How can we
explain this finding? First of all, governing parties face
a significant trade-off between their own policy pref-
erences and government effectiveness. Since a divided
government with an ambiguous EU position runs the
risk of isolation and ineffectiveness at the EU level,
coalition partners have a strong incentive to voice
unitary positions on Europe. This may limit the
strategic opportunities for opposition parties to profit
from ideological inconsistencies (see also Kriesi 2007;
Usherwood 2002). A more general explanation for this
finding builds on previous research pointing to the
predominance of intraparty politics in understanding
the behavior of party leaders governing in a coalition
(Laver and Shepsle 1990; Luebbert 1986; Strøm, Budge,
and Laver 1994). According to Strøm (1990), party
leaders cannot act as ‘‘unconstrained dictators’’ and
reap the material benefits of office, while simply
ignoring the preferences of their constituents and rank
and file. Future elections are always on the horizon so
leaders are dependent on their activists and extrap-
arliamentary organizations to provide them with
capital and labor. This line of reasoning is consistent
with prior studies arguing that party leaders are more
likely to side with their activists than coalition partners
when their position weakens due to internal conflicts
(Luebbert 1986; Warwick 1996). Hence, a possible
explanation for the fact that interparty wedge issues are
not exploited by challengers might be that intraparty
wedge issues are a more efficient means to destabilize
government coalitions. Due to the dependence of party
leaders on their activists, doing so could ultimately also
destabilize the government coalition as a whole. Not-
withstanding that the above considerations provide
a plausible account for our findings, more work, both
theoretical and empirical, on the relationship between
intraparty and interparty dissent is needed to provide
definitive answers.
This study also contributes to our understanding
of the strategic use of issue attention within electoral
competition more generally. Previous work suggests
that parties emphasize certain issues on which they
hold a performance and competence advantage over
their competitors, while deemphasizing the preferred
issues of their opponents (Budge and Farlie 1983).
Stressing the ‘ownership’ of issues should eventually
lead the electorate to associate them with these issues,
which is electorally advantageous (Petrocik 1996;
Stubager and Slothuus 2013). Since wedge-issue
competition is largely aimed at internally dividing
the parties in government, our findings suggest that
certain parties may highlight particular issues regard-
less of their degree of ownership, but rather due to
the fact that this particular issue splits rivals. Playing
up the weakness of competitors may constitute as
much of a strategic advantage over competitors as
highlighting one’s own strengths.
The empirical analyses in this article have focused
on a classic wedge issue in Western European party
competition: the European integration issue. How-
ever, the theoretical model of coalition politics and
the distinction between challenger, mainstream
opposition, and government parties should be
equally pertinent to understand party competition
on other wedge issues such as immigration. Yet,
ultimately, the generalizability of the findings is an
empirical question and future work should test the
theoretical framework on other issues.
In addition, this study also offers an interesting
contribution to the literature on coalition formation
(cf. Strøm, Budge, and Laver 1994; Tavits 2008;
Warwick 1996). Whereas previous work has mainly
sought to understand these dynamics by focusing on
party size and ideology, less attention has been
devoted to the role of a party’s past behavior. A recent
study by Tavits (2008) suggests that this is important
as she demonstrates that parties who defected from
a government coalition are likely punished for this
behavior in the subsequent coalition negotiations by
their former partners. In a similar vein, our findings
would lead to the expectation that parties in oppo-
sition may aim to avoid punishment from potential
coalition partners by refraining from certain strategic
tactics available to them such as the exploitation of
divisive issues within government parties. As such,
the consequences of wedge issues mobilization con-
stitute an important step for further inquiry. Besides
the question of whether parties are punished for
mobilizing wedge issues, more research is needed on
the effectiveness of wedge-issue strategies. By distin-
guishing between intraparty and intracoalition dissent
and showing that opposition parties differ in the extent
to which they engage in wedge-issue competition, the
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present study offers an important foundation for future
work on the dynamics of wedge-issue competition in
multiparty systems.
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Marc van de Wardt is a postdoctoral researcher
and lecturer in the Department of Political Science at
the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Catherine E. De Vries is a Professor of European
Politics in the Department of Politics and Interna-
tional Relations and Fellow of Lincoln College at the
University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
Sara B. Hobolt is the Sutherland Chair of
European Institutions and a Professor at the London
School of Economics and Political Science, London,
United Kingdom.
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