Traditional, centrist parties under threat as voters seek change

Traditional, centrist parties under threat as voters seek change


Elections and political events in recent years have revealed the serious weakness of the traditional, centrist parties in Europe, the US and some other countries, such as Brazil and Israel. In many countries, voters are clearly tired of parties that, in many cases, have run countries since the end of the Second World War. While there are some understandable reasons for voters’ rejection of the traditional parties and embrace of new or more extreme parties, it is deeply worrying that a loss of memory and a desire for change at any cost is driving a turn against stability.

In several European countries, the traditional, centrist parties that led the post-Second World War era have been losing ground to more extreme parties, such as in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy and Greece. These fringe parties come from the left and right sides of the political spectrum. In the UK, the traditional Labour and Conservative parties still dominate, but Brexit, which rejected a core part of the traditional political consensus, has significantly realigned politics in the country. In the US, the Republican and Democratic parties remain the only viable options for American voters; however, Donald Trump has shifted the Republican Party far from its traditional moorings, and Republican voters have rejected their traditional elites. It is unclear how the American left will respond, but a push further to the left is possible. 

In 2017, French voters chose a different path, rejecting the traditional parties from the left and right and voting in a new, centrist party — En Marche, led by Emmanuel Macron. Many centrists around the world are watching Macron to see if his approach offers a potential new middle road. 

The traditional parties that have led Western countries and several nations in other regions since the end of the Second World War tended to be centrist parties that developed extensive technocratic and policy expertise. In Europe, the centrist parties typically offered a choice somewhere between socialist and conservative. They often competed directly with each other, but sometimes they formed grand coalitions to govern together. In the US, Americans never embraced socialism, but a liberal-conservative split offered different forms of centrist politics. 

There are significant variations between countries and specific parties, but, on the whole, the centrist parties embraced a post-war understanding that cooperation with other countries — through diplomacy, trade and multilateral institutions — was essential to avoid large-scale war and tackle transnational problems. They avoided the extremes that had destroyed Europe in the past. The center-right parties condemned fascism. The center-left parties rejected a hard turn to communism; typically, they supported capitalism as long as it was tempered with social safety nets and regulation. Centrist party leaders understood that extreme forms of nationalism had destroyed Europe more than once and so they sought a balance between preserving their national interests while cooperating for peace and prosperity. 

The centrist parties developed the architecture of regional and global cooperation that, despite many serious flaws, has preserved peace in Western Europe and allowed unprecedented prosperity and progress to flourish in the West, and extend to many other parts of the world too. 

There are legitimate reasons why many voters were frustrated with the lack of response from some centrist parties. However, deeper, more gut-level instincts also appear to be driving a rejection of traditional parties. 

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Along the way, the centrist parties made some serious mistakes. Often, they failed to adapt quickly enough to changing economic realities that challenged the old social safety nets. They struggled to cope with the effects of ageing populations. They often failed to take seriously people’s fears about changing demographics, shifting identities and the downsides of globalization. Many became too bureaucratic and failed to communicate in terms that made sense to many people. In recent years, the financial crisis and its aftermath, plus the refugee crisis, pushed increasingly weak centrist parties to breaking point. 

There are legitimate reasons why many voters were frustrated with the lack of response from some centrist parties. However, deeper, more gut-level instincts also appear to be driving a rejection of traditional parties. 

It appears that some voters just want something different. It is difficult to judge the extent to which people are rejecting traditional parties because those parties messed up versus the extent to which they just want change for the sake of change. 

Europe, the US, Brazil and some other countries also are seeing a rejection of expertise. People are tired of nuanced or technocratic discussions about complex problems and policies and want a simple, instinctive message, which populists are very good at providing. 

Another major challenge for traditional parties is memory loss. The generations that lived through the Second World War — let alone the Great Depression, the First World War and the frequent instability that preceded them — are very elderly or gone. It is difficult for the subsequent generations to fully appreciate that the traditional parties’ political approaches staved off war, genocide, economic collapse and mass suffering.

Fundamentally, many voters feel that the traditional, centrist parties are no longer providing progress. While people might understand intellectually that life today is far better than in the past, emotionally they are unhappy feeling stuck at OK. This makes it easy to embrace anyone that offers a new vision — even if that vision is incredibly risky. 

Healthy societies find a balance between change and stability. Centrist parties should not rest on their laurels and must seek continuing improvement in people’s lives, but voters should be wary about rejecting stability. 

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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