Centrism triumphant – sort of

So, the far left ended up with the balance of power, the anti-European right surged in support, and the centrist Liberals were evicted from parliament. On the surface, Sunday’s German election wasn’t a great victory for moderation. Yet today’s Le Monde headlines its front page editorial on the result with “The triumph of centrism in politics”.

In fact, the appearances are deceptive. The Left lost support, and its notional balance of power is of no use to it. The eurosceptics are still a minor force. And the Liberals lost out not because the electorate didn’t want moderation, but because it felt that the major parties were adequately providing it. Their problem was not being philosophically out of fashion, but failing to provide product differentiation.

Germans are returning to the mainstream. The share of the vote taken by the two major parties, down to a historic low in 2009, has recovered strongly (although it still has some way to go). Angela Merkel has come to embody her country’s self-image as being steady, sensible and moderate.

As Le Monde puts it:

Prudent, pragmatic, ceaselessly in quest of consensus, she is in tune with her compatriots. She is the quintessence of centrism in a Germany that taps into none of the tropes of extremism – neither of the right nor the left. Happy country and singular European exception!

No doubt, one person’s moderation is another’s extremism. The Greeks, for example, don’t seem to regard Merkel as a particularly “moderate” adversary when it comes to the imposition of austerity policies. But if her moderation is an illusion, it’s clearly one that she shares with a large part of the German electorate.

Although Merkel is likely to take the opposition Social Democrats into coalition, she will do so very much on her terms (she always has the Greens as a backup if the SPD demands too much). Her position of strength helps to explain the editorial’s remark that “Merkel III … will resemble Merkel II” (it says “for Europe”, since of course that’s what a French newspaper is interested in, but no-one expects much change in domestic policy as well).

Indeed the abiding centrism of German politics can be seen in the fact that even Merkel’s first term – when the grand coalition was much more an affair of equals – displayed much the same continuity. Just as fiscal irresponsibility in Greece was a bipartisan affair, so the rather moralistic German response, and the political attitudes that go with it, to a large extent transcend left and right.

It’s certainly true that continuity has its advantages. But it’s a matter of opinion whether this is really “the rhythm of a democracy in full maturity”, as Le Monde has it, or a way of denying meaningful choice to the voters.

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