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.

The British Liberal Democrats, for example, have tried for decades to become a strong centrist third party, without success. While the political vocabulary in the United States is different, the Democratic Party, since Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, is indeed a center-left force, the Republican Party occupies the right, and no other significant party exists.

In France and Germany, there is more fragmentation. Politics is still dominated by a large center-left party and a large center-right party, but smaller groups – some claiming the center and others the right and left extremes – challenge them to various degrees. In some countries, the “Greens” have their own identity, close to the left; but, despite remarkable progress in Germany, they remain unable to reach the electoral size of the large center-right and center-left parties.