For decades, they were the untouchable monoliths of politics: The big nation-wide parties that straddled the centre ground, leaning slightly to the left or right, capturing big swathes of votes across the spectrum, forming the lion's share of national governments during the half-dozen decades after the Second World War.
The Liberals in Canada. The Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in many European countries. Labour in Britain and the Netherlands, and the Socialists in Spain and France. These big-tent operations covered so much of the electoral horizon, and spent so much time in power, that they came to be known in many countries as the "natural governing party."
Suddenly, they are falling apart, their gradual seepage of voter support during the past 10 or 15 years exploding into sudden ballot embolisms. Canadians experienced the meltdown firsthand last month with the dramatic collapse of the Liberal party - in which fewer than one in five Canadians voted for a party that had dominated politics for a century, and its standing fell from 77 seats to 34 overnight, all but disappearing in Quebec and the west.
This was merely one event in a season of big-party cataclysms across the Western world. Like a row of wave-battered skyscrapers collapsing into the ocean, the world's mighty centrists are being humbled by formerly fringe challengers from the left and the right. The big political party seems to be headed for extinction.
"We've seen a real hollowing-out of the mainstream parties," says Olaf Cramme, director of the London-based European think tank Policy Network, which has recently completed a large-scale study of the factors that decimated Europe's big centre-left parties in the last several years.
"It's been a general decline on both sides - it affected the social democrats and liberals earlier than the centre-right, but the decline has hit the mainstream parties wherever you look," he says.
Only weeks before the Liberal collapse in Canada, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, the conservative party that has governed Germany more often than not in the decades since the war, suffered its most humiliating defeat. In Baden-Württemberg, one of Germany's most wealthy, populous and loyally conservative states, her party suffered a mammoth defeat at the hands of the previously marginal Green Party - closely following another shock defeat in Hamburg state elections, and a deep slide in national poll standings. It is not as if her traditional big-tent opponents, the Social Democrats, are doing better: They have suffered a deep fall in support, losing votes to the neo-communist Left Party, the Greens and other fringe voices.
And only days after the Liberals melted down, Britain's already humbled Labour Party suffered a similar beating in Scotland, losing most of its traditional voter support to the separatist Scottish National Party, which won a majority. And their broad-spectrum opponents, the Conservatives, have been unable to govern Britain without the backing of the once-marginal Liberal Democrats - leading many pundits to say that Britain is unlikely to have a majority government again.
The meltdown continued this week: The arrest of French IMF chief and presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn on sex-assault charges in New York City didn't just strip the centre-left Socialist Party of its most viable candidate; it also revealed that the party's support has badly fallen, that it lacks the talent pool to throw up any other inspiring candidates, and that it may well lose badly to more extreme parties. President Nicolas Sarkozy had little reason to gloat, though: His conservative UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party, the descendent of the party founded by Charles de Gaulle and a permanent fixture on the French landscape, is at its lowest level in recent history, and polls all year have shown that the extreme right wing National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, is now the second most popular party in France, stealing a huge chunk of the formerly secure UMP vote. As with Silvio Berlusconi's Italian coalition, many observers wonder if the UMP will exist as a big party after the 2012 election.
And so it has continued: In the Netherlands, the powerful Labour Party was emasculated and booted out of the governing coalition in this year's elections. In Ireland, the twin centrist forces of the Fianna Fail and Fine Gael parties were chiselled down to stumps in this year's election, with once-tiny parties gaining considerable ground.
This is a phenomenon across most of the Western world. According to the Parties and Elections in Europe database, the combined standing of the two largest parties in Britain, Germany, Austria and Ireland has fallen from 75 per cent of the vote in 2000 to barely 50 per cent today; other countries, like the Netherlands, have seen even steeper declines.
Before the meltdowns, the meltdown
The hemorrhage of centrist votes began in earnest with the financial crisis of 2008, when a surprising number of voters shifted away from the big all-in-one parties to "outsider" voices - single-issue parties such as the Greens and the anti-immigration parties of the Netherlands and Scandinavia, traditional parties of protest such as the NDP in Canada, anti-system parties such as the Scottish and Catalan separatists, or forces of indiscriminate anger, such as the right-wing National Front in France.Report Typo/Error