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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 December, 2003, 15:43 GMT
Glossary: US elections

What is the difference between hard money and soft money? Or between Medicare and Medicaid? These are just a few of the many well-used - but often misunderstood - terms in US politics.

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A - C
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The radio call sign for aircraft used to transport the president of the United States. Any aircraft used to carry the president is referred to as Air Force One. Since 1990, it has usually referred to one of two specially configured Boeing 747-200s, although there are other smaller aircraft in the presidential fleet.

The two 747s are equipped with state-of-the-art communications systems, a stateroom and executive conference rooms, accommodation for the press and private quarters for the president and the first family.

Both aircraft are designed to operate as independently as possible from ground support should the need arise. They are fitted with self-contained baggage loading equipment, front and rear stairs, a medical centre and the capability for in-flight refuelling.

The US vice-president's aircraft is known as Air Force Two. The presidential helicopter is called Marine One.

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An American term for the orbital highway or ring-road that often surrounds major cities. In political reporting the term generally refers to congressional business undertaken inside the highway surrounding Washington DC - Interstate 495. For example, "a beltway issue" refers to a political issue or debate considered to be of importance only to the political class and of little interest to the general public.

Alternatively, those considered to have a "beltway mentality" are seen as being out of touch with the ordinary voters elsewhere in the country.

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The collective term for the first 10 amendments of the US constitution establishing the fundamental rights of individual citizens.

The amendments act as a mutually reinforcing set of rights and limit the powers of federal and state governments. Acts of Congress or laws ruled to be in conflict with these rights - and therefore unconstitutional - may be declared void by the US Supreme Court.

The Bill of Rights arose because only a very few individual rights were specified in the original main body of the constitution.

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The 1976 Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited spending by individuals or groups who are not standing for election themselves but who wish to support or oppose particular candidates.

The provision does not apply to contributions made by corporations or unions and rules that in any donor situation there must be no co-ordination or consultation with any candidate.

The court's decision in effect overruled two major parts of the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act which imposed mandatory spending limits on all federal races, and limited independent spending on behalf of federal candidates.

The court ruled that such restrictions violated an individual's First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.

The subsequent rise in "soft money" campaign contributions and "issue ads" led to growing concerns about corruption and the influence of pressure groups in federal election campaigns, culminating in the McCain-Feingold legislation of 2002.

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The seat of Congress in Washington DC.

The Capitol, constructed largely of white marble, is home to both the Senate and House of Representatives as well as various committee and hearing rooms and an art gallery.

The steps of the Capitol building are traditionally the stage for the formal inauguration of presidents in the January following an election year.

The building's famous white dome is crowned with a statue of Freedom.

Most states have their own capitol buildings in the state capital, many of which have a similar design to the building in Washington.

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A private meeting of party members designed to seek agreement on delegates for a state or national nominating convention based on which candidate they wish to support.

Participants in presidential caucus meetings generally elect delegates to county conventions who in turn, at a later date, choose delegates for a state or local congressional convention. The delegates selected are not bound, but usually follow the wishes of caucus-goers. It is at these later meetings that the delegates will usually be chosen for the party's national nominating convention at which the presidential candidate will be declared.

Critics of the caucus system argue that its laborious nature tends to mean it is dominated by political activists, unrepresentative of popular feeling, who will nominate candidates with little real chance of winning.

Just under a dozen states use the system - the number is different according to party.

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The constitutional role granted to the president as head of the United States' armed forces.

Under Article III of the constitution the president is given authority to lead "the army and the navy of the United States and of the militia of the several states when called into the actual service of the United States."

No president since James Madison in the War of 1812 has personally led troops into battle.

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Congress forms the law-making or legislative branch of the US Government as prescribed in Article I, Section I of the US constitution.

It is made up of two houses - the 435-member House of Representatives and 100-member Senate - each of which officially has equal power, if not prestige.

A congressional period lasts two years (or sessions) and begins at noon on 3 January of odd-numbered years.

As well as drafting and implementing laws, Congress can also:

  • investigate matters of public concern;
  • oversee federal agencies and their programmes;
  • declare war;
  • approve and ratify treaties;
  • regulate commerce;
  • increase and decrease taxes;
  • print and appropriate money;
  • confirm/approve judicial and federal appointments and nominations;
  • impeach federal officials including the president and vice-president;
  • and override presidential vetoes based on a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

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The fundamental law of the US federal system of government, the US constitution defines the principal organs of government, their jurisdictions and the basic rights of citizens.

It is upheld as the supreme law of the land, meaning all federal and state laws, executive actions and judicial decisions must be consistent with it.

The US constitution is the oldest written national constitution in operation.

D - G
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The donkey has become the established - although unofficial - political symbol for the Democratic Party.

Democratic Party historians say the symbol was first used during Andrew Jackson's presidential campaign in 1828.

Labelled a "jackass" by his opponents, he adopted the donkey himself for his campaign posters and it stuck with him as a result of his stubborn reputation.

The cartoonist Thomas Nast later also used the donkey - to represent a group of northern anti-civil war Democrats, and more generally as a symbol for pro-Democrat editors and newspapers.

By the presidential campaign of 1880 the symbol was firmly established. A cartoon in the New York Daily Graphic showed the losing Democrat candidate, Winfield S Hancock, leading a team of party crusaders into battle on the back of a donkey.

Critics of the party regard the donkey as stubborn, silly and ridiculous - while die-hard Democrats say it represents the humble, homely, smart, courageous and loveable aspects of the party.

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The collective term for the 538 electors who officially elect the president and vice-president of the United States.

Presidential candidates require a majority of 270 college votes to win the presidency. The number of electors each state is allocated is equal to the combined total of its senators and representatives in Congress.

The college system was originally conceived before the existence of political parties and was designed to allow the electors to act as independent voters. Electors are now considered expected to follow the wishes of the majority of voters in each state.

However, there have been a number of cases in recent elections where at least one elector has voted for a candidate other than the one they were pledged to.

Two states, Nebraska and Maine, have eliminated the "winner takes all" process and instead now divide their electors in accordance with the proportion of the popular vote given to each candidate.

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The traditional symbol for the Republican Party first appeared in a cartoon in the 7 November 1874 edition of Harper's Weekly by the artist Thomas Nast.

Pro-Democrat newspapers were accusing the Republican president of "Caesarism" for allegedly seeking a third term in office. The New York Herald also ran a hoax story that all the animals in the city's Central Park Zoo had escaped.

Nast drew an ass wearing a lion's skin to represent the Herald, frightening away the animals in the forest (Central Park). Among them was an elephant labelled "Republican Vote", tripping up in its haste to escape the blown-up scare of "Caesarism".

After that year's mid-term elections, in which the Republicans did particularly badly, Nast pictured an elephant in a trap to illustrate how the Republican vote had been decoyed from its normal allegiance. The image was picked up by other cartoonists and quickly came to symbolise the party, not just Republican voters.

Supporters of the Democratic Party regard the elephant as bungling, stupid, pompous and conservative. However Republicans, who have adopted the animal as their official symbol, think of it as dignified, strong and intelligent.

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An independent regulatory agency created in 1975 to administer and enforce federal campaign finance law as defined in the 1972 Federal Election Campaign Act and subsequent amendments.

The act lays down strict reporting requirements for all candidates and campaign committees seeking election to federal office. It also applies to any individuals and groups spending money with the purpose of influencing federal elections.

The six members of the commission are appointed by the president and have jurisdiction over the financing of campaigns for the House of Representatives, the Senate, the presidency and the vice-presidency.

By law, no more than three commissioners can be members of the same political party.

During a campaign period the FEC collects and publishes regular updates on the sources of finance for federal candidates.

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Money supplied to campaign funds from public resources and administered by the Federal Election Commission. Federal matching funds match donations made by individual contributors dollar-for-dollar up to a maximum of $250 per donation.

Candidates are not obliged to take matching funds, but if they opt to do so they must restrict their spending to a maximum of approximately $40m during the presidential primary period.

Funding is paid out in three stages:

  • Matching funds for the primaries
  • A block grant for the conventions
  • A further block grant for the general election

Those who decline matching funds are free from any spending limits (although they are still bound by contribution limits including a $2,000 limit from each individual).

To qualify for funds, candidates need to show they are viable by raising at least $100,000 in individual donations, including at least $5,000 from 20 different states.

Candidates who fail to receive at least 10% of the popular vote in two successive primary elections lose their eligibility for continued payments, unless and until they receive at least 20% of the vote in a later primary.

The two major parties - the Democrats and Republicans - are automatically entitled to a public grant to pay for the cost of conventions. Minor parties are also entitled to a smaller subsidy in proportion to the vote they received. New parties are not eligible.

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An imprecise term used most often to describe those involved in the framing and adoption of the constitution at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.

The convention brought together 55 delegates from what were then the 13 states.

Their decisions and the constitution they drew up laid the groundwork for the country's political system as it is today.

The term is sometimes also used to include influential figures in the struggle for independence and those who fought the Revolutionary War.

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The traditional nickname for the Republican Party widely used in American political reporting.

The party's official history traces the term back to the late 19th Century citing an article in the Boston Post headlined "The GOP Doomed."

The party website suggests the term Grand Old Party may have evolved from the term used to refer to British Prime Minister William Gladstone - the GOM or the Grand Old Man.

In Richard Nixon's 1964 presidential campaign the acronym was used briefly as the basis for the slogan the "Go-Party", but by the late 1970s it had become firmly associated with the term Grand Old Party as it is today.

H - M
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Money contributed by an individual directly to a particular campaign.

New legislation in 2002 raised the limit for individual contributions from $1,000 per candidate per federal (presidential or congressional) election to $2,000.

The first $250 donated to a candidate by an individual can be matched dollar-for-dollar from federal matching funds.

Limits on statewide elections vary according to state laws.

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The House of Representatives is the larger of the two houses of Congress.

The 435 members of the House - generally known as Congressmen and Congresswomen - serve two-year terms, as compared to the six-year term of senators.

The presiding member, the Speaker of the House, is elected by a majority vote of the members of the House at the beginning of each new Congress.

House members each represent approximately half a million citizens in their "districts". The number of districts per state is determined each decade by a proportional allocation based on the federal census.

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Registered voters who do not declare a particular party affiliation are grouped together under the term "independent".

Because most voters registered for a particular party will vote for that party's candidate, general election campaigns have tended to focus on winning over these groups.

Nationwide about a third of all voters consider themselves independent, however some key states have a higher proportion of independent voters than others. New Hampshire, for example, traditionally has a large number of independents and as a result has a reputation for producing unexpected results during its primary elections.

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The Joint Chiefs are the leading military advisers to the president and the secretary of defence.

The panel is made up of the chiefs of staff of the US Army and Air Force, the chief of naval operations and - in cases involving marine corps issues - the commandant of the marine corps.

The group is headed by a chairman who is considered a spokesman for the US military as a whole as well as the president's principal military adviser.

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A 2002 campaign finance reform law named after its main sponsors: Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold.

The law is designed to limit the underground system of fundraising and spending in federal election campaigns. The law bans "soft money" and restricts "issue ads" benefiting candidates. These two practices became increasingly common in elections after the 1974 Buckley vs Valeo Supreme Court decision left loopholes in campaign disclosure laws and limits on contributions.

Soft money donations are not subject to federal limits because they technically go to state parties. Issue ads are commercials financed by interest groups supposedly to promote causes, but which are in reality thinly disguised plugs for particular candidates. The law requires the funding of "electioneering communications" to be made public in the same way that other campaign spending is disclosed.

Opponents of the law say it violates First Amendment rights of free speech in political campaigns, but a Supreme Court decision rejected a challenge to it in December 2003. The law has angered political activists and pressure groups on both right and left concerned that their influence in federal elections will be restricted.

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A federally funded programme administered at state level to provide medical benefits and healthcare for some low-income people.

Created by amendments to the 1965 Social Security Act, it applies only to certain categories of people eligible for welfare programmes.

These include the old, the blind and the disabled, single-parent families and the children of disabled or unemployed parents.

It is up to states to determine matters of coverage, eligibility and the administration of the programme but they must conform to broad federal guidelines.

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The national health insurance programme for the elderly and the disabled established in 1965 under an amendment to the Social Security Act.

Medicare breaks down into two parts:

  • hospital insurance
  • medical insurance

It is designed to help protect people aged 65 and over from the high costs of healthcare.

It also provides coverage for patients with permanent kidney failure and people with certain disabilities.

N - P
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The party assembly held every four years at which state delegates from across the country gather to vote on the party's candidate for president and vice-president.

National conventions now serve mainly to formalise the will of the majority of voters, expressed during the earlier state primaries and caucuses. Usually the winner of the greatest number of delegates from the primary and caucus states will receive the party's nomination.

Nonetheless the processes remain in place in case the decision over the party's candidate has to be brokered by the various party leaders. In 1924, a bitterly divided Democratic Party took no less than 103 ballots to decide on their presidential candidate.

Today the event is largely a platform for the prospective candidate to present their choice of vice-presidential running mate and to draw up their policy agenda.

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The office traditionally occupied by the president in the West Wing of the White House.

The room did not exist until the 1930s when it was added on as part of expansion work to the building. The term is often used to describe the presidency itself, for example: "This order comes straight from the Oval Office."

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A law enacted in response to the 11 September attacks giving government agencies new powers to tackle terrorism.

The law permits the indefinite imprisonment without trial of foreigners deemed to be a threat to national security. The government is not required to provide detainees with a lawyer or make any announcement regarding the arrest. The law also extends police powers to wiretap and search a suspect's home.

These and other tough measures included in the law have sparked severe criticisms from liberals who argue that it endangers civil liberties and that its search and detention provisions are unconstitutional. Critics also say the law was passed without proper review in a climate of fear - only one senator voted against it.

Supporters of the law argue that these new powers are essential to prevent the loss of thousands of lives in another terrorist attack on US soil, and that any loss of rights is justified in order to protect the basic right to security.

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An organisation formed to promote its members' views on selected issues, usually by raising money that is then passed on to fund candidates who support the group's position.

PACs monitor candidates' voting records, question them on their beliefs on issues of interest to their membership and pass the collected information along to their contributors.

Because federal law restricts the amount of money an individual, corporation or union can give to candidates, PACs have become an important way of funnelling large funds into the political process and influencing elections.

PACs have their origins in the 1940s as a response to restrictions on unions using their money to contribute to federal election campaigns.

The number of PACs exploded following the campaign funding laws introduced in the 1970s, from 608 in 1974 to 4,009 in 1984. Over the same period contributions from PACs rose from $12.5m to $105.3m.

In the run-up to the 2000 general election, PACs contributed $259.8m to candidates for Congress.

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A state-level election held before a general election to nominate a party's candidate for office.

Primaries are held for both the presidential and congressional races, although the exact regulations governing them and the dates on which they are held vary from state to state. In some states voters are restricted to choosing candidates only from the party for which they have registered support.

However 29 states permit "open primaries" in which a voter may opt to back a candidate regardless of their nominal affiliation. In this case strategic voting may take place with, for example, Republicans crossing over to back the perceived weaker Democratic candidate.

Primaries first emerged as a result of the so-called "progressive movement" of the early 20th Century, which argued that leaving the nomination process purely to party bosses was inherently undemocratic.

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The term used for those who support a woman's right to choose abortion if she so wishes.

Supporters of the pro-choice agenda do not necessarily support abortion itself, only the position that women are entitled to make the decision themselves. Most pro-choice politicians will usually seek to avoid the emotive issue of abortion itself, following instead the libertarian line that government has no place interfering in what should be a private decision.

The Democratic Party has been broadly supportive of the pro-choice movement. President Clinton summed up his party's stance by saying abortions should be "safe, legal and rare".

Republicans, however, have been divided. The religious right-wing of the party still calls for a total ban on abortion, while moderates are wary that a strong stance will deter female voters from the party. Under George W Bush, the right-wingers have scored an important victory in getting Congress to pass a ban on "partial birth" abortions.

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The term used to describe politicians and pressure groups opposed to abortion or allowing women to opt for abortion.

Some American advocates of the pro-life position believe abortion should only be allowed in cases where a pregnancy results from rape or incest. Others believe that abortion should be ruled out altogether.

The 1973 Roe vs Wade verdict by the US Supreme Court, in effect legalising abortion in the US, is viewed by pro-life supporters as in contravention of the fundamental rights of the unborn child.

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The controversial practice where voters are contacted over the telephone by campaign workers, who talk up their own candidate and rubbish opponents.

Push polling became a prominent feature of the 2000 Republican primary campaign, with candidates George W Bush and John McCain each accusing the other of descending into increasingly dirty campaign tactics.

Voters often say they feel deceived by the technique, particularly as a typical call often begins with the kind of questions that a normal, independent survey would ask. Some observers say the technique undermines voter confidence in the electoral system and risks deterring yet more voters from turning out on polling day.

R - V
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The landmark 1973 Supreme Court judgement making abortions legal in the US.

By a vote of seven to two the court justices ruled that governments lacked the power to prohibit abortions. The court's judgement was based on the decision that a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy came under the freedom of personal choice in family matters as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The decision remains one of the most controversial ever made by the Supreme Court.

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The so-called "right to bear arms" amendment to the US constitution, ratified in 1791.

The preamble reads: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the protection of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." But the wording is open to interpretation and as a result it has become the focus of fierce debate between supporters and opponents of gun control.

Gun control opponents such as the National Rifle Association argue that the amendment gives Americans the constitutional right to bear arms free from any form of government control. But advocates of gun control say the amendment was written in the days of the "Wild West" - which are now long gone - and only guarantee a right to bear arms as part of a collective militia.

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The Senate is generally considered to be the upper house of the United States Congress, although members of the other house - the House of Representatives - traditionally regard it as a co-equal body.

The Senate has 100 elected members, two from each state, serving six-year terms with one-third of the seats coming up for election every two years. The vice-president serves as the presiding officer over the Senate, although he does not serve on any committees and is restricted to voting only in the event of a tie.

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"Soft money" refers to political funds raised outside the regulations and laws of the Federal Election Campaign Act, and has been the main target for advocates of campaign finance reform.

Soft money had to be deposited in non-federal party accounts - at state level - and could not be used in connection with federal elections. A series of legal loopholes were used to get around this technicality, until the practice was banned by the McCain-Feingold law in 2002.

Many states allow individuals - as well as companies and unions (who are prohibited from giving directly to federal candidates) - to give unlimited amounts direct to state parties. Prior to McCain-Feingold this could be spent on grassroots organising, advertising and voter drives that indirectly helped all the party's candidates, including presidential candidates.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, the two parties raised nearly $500m, mostly from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.

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First established during the 1988 campaign, Super Tuesday refers to a critical date in the campaign calendar - usually in early March - when a large number of states hold primary elections.

Originally Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia held their primaries on Super Tuesday.

The hope was that by holding their votes on the same day they would increase the influence of the South and downplay the importance of the earlier New Hampshire primaries and Iowa caucuses. Since then a number of other states have chosen to hold their primaries on the same day.

In the 2004 campaign, Super Tuesday falls on 2 March when 11 different states are holding primaries and two states are holding caucuses. They include the big states of New York and California, which send some of highest numbers of delegates to the party conventions later in the year.

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Swing states are, in the most simple terms, states in which the outcome of the vote is uncertain.

The most remarkable swing state is Missouri, which has backed every successful presidential candidate in the 20th Century except Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

It carries only 11 votes in the electoral college, however, whereas larger states carry more weight, bringing candidates closer to the 270 votes needed to win.

In 2000, Florida was the crucial swing state. Its 25 electoral college votes went to George W Bush, with a margin of victory of just 537 votes. The race in Florida - this time worth 27 votes - is expected to be extremely close in 2004.

Bush won Arizona, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia narrowly in 2000. These, along with Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Oregon, New Mexico and Minnesota, are expected to be competitive again in 2004.

Republicans also hope that the largest state, California, which Al Gore won comfortably in 2000, could also be competitive for the first time. It has 55 votes in the electoral college.

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The vice-president's primary duty is to succeed to the presidency in the event of the resignation, removal or death of the incumbent president.

The vice-president's only other constitutional responsibility is to preside over the US Senate and to use his vote as the decider in the event of a tie. This is only overridden when the Senate is conducting an impeachment trial against the president.

Early vice-presidents had little else in the way of official responsibilities. In 1885 Woodrow Wilson, who would later become president, commented that there was "little to be said about the vice-president... His importance consists in the fact that he may cease to be vice-president."

In recent years, though, vice-presidents have taken on an increasingly prominent role managing a range of high-profile foreign and domestic policy programmes.


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