Despite Unrest, Europe's Center Is Holding

It's easy to read the last few months as one vast refutation of self-regulating capitalism and the elites who nurtured it. Many observers have thus warned that Europe's voters will flock to far-left parties now loudly crowing "told you so." Or, in the opposite direction, to the populist right, whose xenophobic rants have taken aim at globalizing capitalists and immigrants.

Instead, Europe's center has held steady, and possibly even gained in strength. In Germany, where the economy is fast declining due to an export implosion, polls show a steady slide in support for the left-populist Linkspartei, down from 15 percent in August to 11 percent last week. The Allensbach Polling Institute also has found that, for the first time since the 2005 election, a majority of voters now favor a center-right coalition between Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats in the upcoming September election. In France, a new Trotskyist party has drawn much attention but has yet to translate it into electoral success. In Britain, extremists are nowhere to be seen. And in Eastern Europe, where countries like Latvia and Ukraine have seen violent street fights erupt amid rising layoffs and collapsing currencies, centrist parties have kept power even as governments fall. Across the region, communism still remains discredited and the far-right marginalized or invisible.

Why has the crisis failed to translate into a boost for the extremes? One reason may be because economic crises—like other threats to national security—tend to rally voters around their existing leadership, says Antwerp University populism expert Cas Mudde. Unpopular leaders may even win back some support, as have Britain's Gordon Brown and the Netherlands' Jan Balkenende. Rightly or wrongly, voters have greater confidence in the mainstream parties to keep the economy stable. Left-wing utopia is good for a protest vote, says Allensbach analyst Thomas Petersen, but few citizens want to be led by the untested (and often bickering) leadership of the populist fringe. Also, centrist parties like Germany's CDU have gone a long way to quiet potential protesters by issuing bailouts and stimulus programs, a signal that they're still working within Europe's social-democratic mainstream. Lastly, political extremism is as much a question of demand as of supply; at present, no charismatic populist has emerged with attractive answers to the crisis.

Of course, these are early days, and the bottom could still be a long way off. "If the crisis lasts a couple of years," says Mudde, "and none of the mainstream parties can solve it, then voters will give extremists a try." Yet another reason to hope that the center can help foster a quick recovery.