The Centrists Cannot Hold

WASHINGTON – In most advanced democracies, a large center-right party competes with a large center-left party. Of course, the extent to which an electoral system favors large parties – by having high popular-vote thresholds to enter parliament, or through winner-take-all constituencies – affects the degree of political fragmentation. But, by and large, the developed democracies are characterized by competition between large parties on the center left and center right. What, then, are true centrists like Mario Monti, Italy’s respected technocratic prime minister, to do?

To be sure, regional and ethnic allegiances play a greater role in some places in Europe – for example, Scotland, Belgium, and Catalonia – but far more so in emerging countries, where political cleavages also reflect specific post-colonial circumstances and often the legacy of single-party rule. Nonetheless, even in “emerging market” democracies, such as Chile, Mexico, South Korea, and India, a left-right cleavage plays an important role – while those who claim the political center generally remain weak.