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opinion

Perhaps the most famous character in modern German fiction is Oskar, the little boy in Guenter Grass's novel The Tin Drum. Shocked by the cruelty of life, he decides to change nothing about himself. He remains a little boy, tapping the same beat on the same toy drum, as the horrors of the modern world unfold before him.

This Sunday, the voters of Germany will almost certainly decide once again to play the Oskar role. Every national election they have held since 2005 has been unchanging: They elect the same chancellor, Angela Merkel, by almost the same not-quite-majority margin, in votes that swing on a never-changing set of bread-and-butter domestic issues. The only thing that might vary this year is the shape of the governing coalition, which is nevertheless bound to be a partnership with one of the two opposition parties that have joined her past three governments.

Germans, almost alone in a Western world driven to wild extremes and flailing shifts, will avoid change and keep tapping on the same old drum.

There are two ways to explain this epic lack of desire for change. One is that Germany's 83 million people have it good – better, by certain measures, than anyone in the world – and that they credit this world-leading position to Ms. Merkel's unexciting but successful brand of pragmatic conservatism.

Germans are indeed more secure than other Europeans – at least as a national economy. They enjoy unemployment rates far below the level usually considered zero. They are the Western world's manufacturing and finance powerhouse – the third-largest exporter of goods and services and the largest exporter of capital, giving them the world's biggest trade surplus. The government is in great fiscal shape and is investing heavily in housing, infrastructure and green energy.

Another explanation, however, sees German voters begrudgingly putting up with an awkwardly negotiated set of compromises, masking a deep sense of frustrations among both Ms. Merkel's conservative base and the left-leaning voters who have supported her Christian Democratic party because it has been the only viable option.

These uneasy compromises, misleadingly described as centrist politics by Ms. Merkel and her centre-left French mirror, President Emmanuel Macron, are in fact electoral tactics which don't really address deeper frustrations among voters. In Germany, those frustrations are largely related to the fact that living standards, wages and safety-net benefits have been kept artificially low for 15 years.

That happened because Ms. Merkel's predecessor, the nominally social-democratic Gerhard Schroeder, made his own "centrist" lunge by slashing benefits and wages in reforms that were great for the economy but often tough for individual voters. Left-leaning voters saw this as a betrayal, and it's a big reason why his party has never bounced back.

When I've toured Germany during the last three elections, these frustrations, rather than any sense of contentment, have been the overwhelmingly dominant narrative. No voter is a centrist; some just put up with the only show in town.

Others turn to the fringes.

The other near-certain outcome Sunday will be that an extreme-right party of racial intolerance, the Alternative for Germany, will win enough votes to sit in the national legislature, the Bundestag, for the first time in postwar history. It and its extreme-left counterpart, the Left Party (descended from the old East German communist regime), could get a fifth of the vote.

What unites these parties, despite being political opposites, is their desire to ally Germany more closely with Russia and with the nationalist governing ideas of its president, Vladimir Putin. So the traditional showdown between left and right has been replaced with a contest between Putinist and broadly Western ideas of government and society.

But it is not as if Germans have turned en masse toward broadly Putinist ideas, the way many American voters have. Extreme nationalism and xenophobia will always attract some voters, but the animus driving voters to the edges in buoyant Germany appears to be a different sort of desire for change: not a move out of the Western world, but a shift back to real choices. The centre may be a nice place to win an election, but for voters it becomes a place of endless anticlimax.