Election Preview: Denmark 2011

Elections to the Folketing, the unicameral Danish Parliament, will be held on September 15. Denmark has been governed since 2001 by a centre-right coalition, which is famous for its dependence on a far-right party for parliamentary support. The current Prime Minister is Lars Løkke Rasmussen, in office since 2009 when his predecessor Anders Fogh Rasmussen became the Secretary-General of NATO. Notably, the last name of the Danish Prime Minister since 1993 has been ‘Rasmussen’, though none of the three are related to each other.

How does it work?

The Folketing has 179 seats. There are 175 seats in Denmark, while the Danish dependencies of the Faroe Islands and Greenland are represented by two members each. The four ‘overseas’ seats are usually called the “North Atlantic mandates”. 135 of the 175 Danish seats are elected by a modified form of d’Hondt PR in ten multi-member constituencies where voters may vote for a party list, one of the candidates on a party list or (rarely) an independent candidate. The remaining 40 seats are compensatory mandates to equalize representation, and these are elected through Saint-Laguë PR. The threshold for the compensatory seats is 2%, making for a wide representation of parties in the Folketing. However, ballot access in laws in Denmark for non-parliamentary parties are quite tough: these parties must gather roughly 20,000 signatures in order to gain ballot access.

Danish parliamentary politics is unlike Westminster parliamentary politics. A government is not required to win a vote of confidence, and what matters is whether the legislature is against the government rather than for it. This means that minority governments are common and that governments must usually form majorities on a bill-by-bill basis.

The parties

Danish election results since 1901 (% vote)

Denmark, like Sweden or Norway, is a Scandinavian welfare state and historically a left-wing country dominated by the Social Democrats. In Denmark, the Social Democrats were the largest party in all elections between 1924 and 2001. Denmark is marked by its strong welfare state and its very high levels of taxation.

In Danish politics and everyday political lingo, each party is commonly referred to by a letter which it is assigned and which appears on ballots. A lot of these letters have little connection with the party’s actual name. I refer to both the party’s letter, its alternative abbreviation and its name in English (or Danish in some cases). For shorthand, I usually talk about parties using their letter or abbreviation.

Between 1924 and 2001, the largest party were the Social Democrats (A or S/SD) and the Social Democrats have governed between 1924 and 1926, 1929 and 1942, 1945, 1947 and 1950, 1953 and 1968, 1971 and 1973, 1975 and 1982 and most recently between 1993 and 2001. As such there are not quite as dominant as the Swedish Social Democratic Party which has governed for the bulk of the post-war era but they were close to being a dominant party. The Danish Social Democrats are more urban-based than their Swedish or Norwegian partners, in fact Copenhagen is a left-wing stronghold while Oslo and especially Stockholm are quite right-wing. Under the Poul Nyrup Rasmussen governments between 1993 and 2001, the Social Democrats experimented with a successful model of ‘flexicurity‘ which maintained the strong unemployment benefits with deregulation of labour laws. The shocking defeat of the Social Democrats in 2001 in which the party fell out of first place for the first time since 1924 was caused by an unpopular 1998 tax hike (to balance the books) but most importantly a post-9/11 mood swing against immigration. Since then, the Social Democrats have failed both to gain power or take back a symbolic first place. Instead, their results have progressively worsened: from 29% in 2001 to 25.5% in 2007. Like so many European social democratic parties these days, the Danish Social Democrats have been confused in their positions and failed to motivate the electorate. The current leader of the party, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the daughter-in-law of Neil Kinnock, is generally regarded as hapless and uninspiring. The main Social Democratic strongholds are Copenhagen, the lower middle-class/working-class suburbs of western Copenhagen, large cities such as Aarhus, Odense and Aalborb and finally northeastern Jutland.

The main right-wing party in Denmark has traditionally been Venstre (V), which is technically translated into English as “Left”. Which does not mean that V is remotely left-wing: the name Venstre emerged in the late nineteenth-century when V was the main progressive opposition to the Right (the Social Democrats being far-left back then). It is more commonly referred to in both English and Danish as the “Liberal Party”. Venstre was founded in 1870 as a Nordic agrarian party, advocating free trade and low taxes. It is usually the largest right-wing party, though it is not always the case (for example in the 1980s). In 1998, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, author of a book well-acclaimed in libertarian circles for expousing a minimal state with low taxes, became party leader and then Prime Minister in 2001 when V outpolled S for the first time since 1924. In power, V and Rasmussen moved away from its original theses of classical liberalism and although the Danish government since 2001 has implemented some major tax cuts, it has maintained the welfare state intact and not exactly reduced the size of government. The Liberals are generally perceived as being more fiscally responsible than the left. All V governments since 2001 have depended on the support of the far-right Danish People’s Party, which has resulted in some of the strictest immigration laws in Europe. The main V strongholds are rural, conservative southern Jutland and generally other rural areas. It is quite weak in Copenhagen, which has historically been a very weak zone for the rural-oriented V.

The Danish People’s Party (O or DF) was founded in 1995 by Pia Kjærsgaard but the direct roots of DF lie in the Progress Party (Frp), a right-wing populist party founded in 1972 by crazy lawyer Morgens Glistrup who claimed that he paid no taxes. The Frp supported radical tax cuts (abolishing the income tax), huge spending cuts (disbanding the Defense Ministry entirely) and eventually doing away with public servants. Frp surged to massive popularity in the so-called “landslide election” of 1973 in which five new parties entered parliament and in which Frp became the second largest party with 16% of the vote and 28 seats. Gradually the Frp moved away from the more radical positions, began to defend the welfare state against those ‘undeserving’ of receiving welfare (as such, it stole many votes from the left) and positioned itself against Muslim immigration. While Glistrup was in jail, the “pragmatic” (and more anti-immigration, populist) faction led by Pia Kjærsgaard took control of the party against the “fundies” led by Glistrup who refused any cooperation with other parties. Tensions continued, however, and the pragmatists quit the party to found DF in 1995. It won 7% in the 1998 elections and has seen its support grow unabatted since. Since 2001, DF has become crucial to the right-wing government in that its parliamentary support provides it with a majority. DF is very much anti-immigration (especially Muslim, of course) and against multiculturalism. Through its control of the government since 2001, DF is perhaps one of the most politically powerful far-right parties in Europe. Indeed, the government implemented some of the toughest immigration laws in Europe since 2001, the most notable of which is the “24-year law” intended to crack down on arranged marriages and family reunification. DF combines these very right-wing positions on immigration with left-wing positions on the welfare state, being a big defender of the welfare state, high social spending (on stuff like pensions) though, like Frp, it is very much against the so-called “welfare scrouges” (a lot of whom happen to be immigrants). DF won 13.8% in the 2007 elections and a record 15% in the 2009 European elections. It has lost some popularity since 2010 after it supported an austerity budget presented by the government. Its longtime leader, Pia Kjærsgaard, is probably the most controversial politician in Denmark.

The Socialist People’s Party (F or SF) was founded in 1959 by a former Communist leader (and CIA agent) who had been expelled from the DKP for opposing Russian intervention in Hungary in 1956. SF’s ideology is Scandinavian “popular socialism”, a variant of democratic socialism which intends to be a centrist middle-ground between communism and social democracy. In recent years, it has moderated its traditional euroscepticism and left-wing positions in order to become both more “green” ideology-wise and “responsible” policy-wise. SF, for example, is not a member of the European Left group in the European Parliament, instead sitting in the Green-EFA group. The party has been led since 2005 by Villy Søvndal, who has led the party to major successes in both the 2007 general and 2009 EU elections (13% and 15.6%). In a bid to make SF appear as a responsible party, it voted in favour of the government’s 2008 budget. Villy Søvndal also took some marked positions against radical clerical Muslim clerics, a move applauded by the right. SF has never actually been in government when the Social Democrats have governed, but they have supported various Social Democratic governments from outside (similarly to how DF props up the current government), most recently the Nyrup Rasmussen government between 1993 and 2001. SF is very strong in downtown Copenhagen (it won the bulk of the downtown core of the city), popular in artsy-liberal intellectual milieus (called the ‘café latte’ crowd in Denmark, similar to the ‘bobos’ in France). It is strong in other urban areas, but in contrast to S it is rather weak in Copenhagen suburbia or northeastern Jutland.

The Conservative People’s Party (C) was founded in 1915. The Conservatives have traditionally been the second-largest right-wing force but in the 1980s, they outpaced V for that role and in fact the Conservative Poul Schlüter governed the country between 1982 and 1993 with V as a junior party. Since then, however, C has struggled and polled only 10% in 2007. Its electoral fortunes are quite closely reversely correlated with that of V: it does well when V does poorly. C is the traditional governing partner for V, and all right-wing governments since 1950 have included C alongside V, often with C as a junior partner. In contrast to V, which in government has moderated its economic liberalism, C remains somewhat more economically liberal, supporting further tax cuts and eventually a flat tax (albeit a rather high flat tax). Traditionally, C has tended to be more nationalist and interventionist than V, but few of those policy differences remain today. On moral issues, C is moderate or liberal. Since 2007, C has been wracked by a whole slew of problems. Bendt Bendtsen, leader since 2009, quit in 2008 and was replaced by Lene Espersen, who was forced out when she became perceived as incompetent. The current leader is Lars Barfoed. The starkest differences between C and V are in terms of voter base. C is much, much more urban. Most of its strength comes from the affluent northern suburbs of Copenhagen, most notably Gentofte which has been governed by the Conservatives since 1909 and which was the only district where C topped the poll in 2007. It is also dominant in Frederiksberg, a very affluent municipality enclaved within Copenhagen. It is also strong in Odense and northern Jutland. It is much weaker in rural conservative southern Jutland, where V performs best.

The Radikale Venstre (B or R/RV), which translates into English as ‘Radical Left’ but are more commonly called ‘Social Liberal Party’ or ‘Radicals’, was founded in 1905 by a left-wing anti-militarist split off from Venstre. The Radicals are a centre-left social liberal party, mixing deep social liberalism with a more centrist attitude on economic issues. In the social sphere, the Radicals are the most pro-immigration and pro-multiculturalism party there is out there and is also quite pro-European. Economically, RV’s urban intellectual electorate is enamored with social liberalism and environmentalism, but they’re not as enamored by high taxes or social programs such as early retirement for blue-collar workers (efterløn). Recently, RV sided with the government in reforming the efterløn system leading to its gradual abolition. In the Danish system of negative parliamentarianism, RV has traditionally sought and received much political influence though less so since 2001. Despite their differences with S and especially SF on economic issues, RV is a key member of the left-wing coalition (though also the most likely to switch sides). Though RV governed in a right-wing coalition between 1968 and 1971 and participated in the Schlüter III cabinet (1988-1990) with C and V, it participated in all Nyrup Rasmussen cabinets between 1993 and 2001. The party’s current leader, Margrethe Vestager, pledged support to S in case of victory in 2007 and again this year. RV is now very much a urban party, polling best in downtown Copenhagen and other large cities. Its electoral clientele are very much ‘café latte’ type folks: educated, urban, young and decently well-off.

The Liberal Alliance (I) is the newest of the parties, adopting its current name in 2008 after being founded in 2007 as the ‘New Alliance’ (Y). The New Alliance was founded by the right-wing of RV led by Naser Khader (a prominent leader of ‘moderate Muslims’) and the left-wing of C led by Gitte Seeberg. Y’s original strategy was to become a centrist liberal governing alternative (for V and C) in the hopes of reducing DF’s influence on the government – a tall order which it failed to realize. After Y did rather poorly in the 2007 elections (2.8%), the party neared collapse as both Khader and Seeberg left the party (Khader is now a Conservative). The party was taken over by Anders Samuelsen, took the name ‘Liberal Alliance’ and moved to the right. Under Samuelsen, the Liberal Alliance has taken up most of C’s unfulfilled classical liberal policies including tax cuts, a 40% flat tax and so forth. The Liberal Alliance is also very much socially liberal: pro-gay marriage, pro-immigration and pro-EU but not environmentalist – it supports nuclear power. The party is extensively funded by the Saxo Bank.

Finally, we have the Red-Green Alliance or Unity List (Ø) is the most left-wing party in the Folketing. It was founded in 1989 by an alliance of three (later four) left-wing parties including the DKP and a Trotskyist party. This very left-wing party has moved out of old archaic communism in favour of environmentalism, feminism and other similarly trendy left-wing ideologies. It wants to nationalize big private companies such as Maersk but also Lego (!). Its support has oscillated between 2% and 4% (4-6 seats). In 2007, the party’s nomination of Asmaa Abdol-Hamid, a Muslim who wears a hijab and holds some radical views (although she is not an Islamist, obviously), sparked much debate and controversy. Ø is led informally by the 27-year old Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, who is pretty popular with most people as a generally pleasant person.

There is also a non-parliamentary party which used to hold seats (up to 9 in fact), the Christian Democrats (K). The Christian Democrats are very right-wing on moral issues such as abortion or homosexuality, but generally centre-left on economic issues. While in parliament, they participated in both the first two Schlüter right-wing cabinets and the first Nyrup Rasmussen left-wing cabinet. It has been shut out since 2005 and it is unlikely that it will win seats in the near future.

In Greenland and the Faroe Islands, partisan politics are entirely different (in a Northern Ireland sense). In Greenland, the battle both for the Folketing and the local legislature is between the governing left-wing separatist Inuit Community and the social democratic (similar to S) Siumut (Forward), which governed Greenland between 1979 and 2009. Both those party won seats in 2007 and will do so again this year. In the Faroe Islands, the spectrum is more open-ended. The major parties are Republic, a left-wing separatist party and the Union Party, a right-wing (similar to V) unionist party. The Union Party picked up a seat from the right-wing separatist People’s Party in 2007. The Social Democratic Party, a left-wing unionist party, also polls well.

There are two rather solid (though perhaps not as coherent) governing coalitions in Denmark which are widely expected to form government if they win. The current coalition is called the ‘blue block’ or less often VCOI, the electoral letter of its four main components. V and C actually hold seats in cabinet, O/DF has supported it from the outside since 2001 and I (Liberal Alliance) has also informally propped the VC governnent up after it lost its majority due to a Conservative defection. On the left, the coalition is referred to as AFB (or AFBØ), also the electoral letter of its components. A/SD and B/RV can be expected to form a governing coalition, propped up formally by F/SF and to a lesser extent by Ø. Blocks are actually a very big deal, more so than the strength of individual parties.

2007 results:

V – Venstre/Liberals 26.2% (-2.8%) winning 46 seats (-6)
A – Social Democrats 25.5% (-0.4%) winning 45 seats (-2)
O – Danish People’s Party 13.9% (+0.7%) winning 25 seats (+1)
F – Socialist People’s Party 13% (+7%) winning 23 seats (+12)
C – Conservative People’s Party 10.4% (+0.1%) winning 18 seats (±0)
B – Radical Left/Social Liberals 5.1% (-4.1%) winning 9 seats (-8)
Y – New Alliance 2.8% (+2.8%) winning 5 seats (+5)
Ø – Unity List 2.2% (-1.2%) winning 4 seats (-2)
K – Christian Democrats 0.9% (-0.8%) winning 0 seats (±0)
North Atlantic mandates 4 (3 left, 1 right)

Right (VCOY) 53.3% winning 94 seats (89 without Y, 95 with North Atlantic, 90 without Y with North Atlantic)
Left (AFBØ) 45.8% winning 81 seats (84 with North Atlantic)

The Campaign and the Issues

The election on September 15 will be very closely fought till the end and it will not be a landslide for anybody, but the left has a ‘decisive’ but narrow advantage going into tomorrow’s vote. The final polls give between 91 and 92 seats to the left block (excluding 3 likely red seats in the North Atlantic) and between 83 and 84 to the governing parties. This lead has been rather constant throughout the campaign and the summer.

The final polls (3 pollsters):

V – Venstre/Liberals 23.4%-24.1% winning 41-43 seats
A – Social Democrats 22.1%-25.3% winning 39-45 seats
O – Danish People’s Party 12-12.7% winning 21-23 seats
F – Socialist People’s Party 10.3%-10.8% winning 18-19 seats
B – Radical Left/Social Liberals 9.1%-11.7% winning 17-21 seats
Ø – Unity List 6.3%-7.4% winning 11-13 seats
C – Conservative People’s Party 5.6%-5.9% winning 10 seats
I – Liberal Alliance 5.3%-6% winning 10 seats
K – Christian Democrats 0.7%-1% winning 0 seats

(+4 North Atlantic mandates, likely split 3-1 left)

The economy has been the main issue in this campaign. Like in most of Europe, the Danish economy has been generally sluggish though not particularly badly off. Economic growth was slow in the first quarter of 2011 (0.1%) and is projected to be between 1.7% and 2% in 2011, weaker than in 2010. Unemployment is low by European standards, 4.5%, but it too has increased from an all-time low of 1.9% in 2008. Furthermore, as the opposition is keen on pointing out, the economic crisis has turned a surplus of 5% to a deficit of 4.6%. The incumbent government led by Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen has proposed what it calls “fiscal responsibility” and “sustainable growth”. This includes some social cuts, such as cuts in student grants or the reform of early retirement, and investments in infrastructure to the level of €1.4 billion. Economists judge that low household consumption, a dead real estate market and high salaries impede economic growth. The government accuses the left of being fiscally irresponsible: high taxes and uncontrolled debt (Denmark’s debt as % of GDP is a sustainable 45%, down from 58% when the right took power in 2001). Løkke Rasmussen has presented the economic battle as a choice between “uncontrolled debt or the upkeep of the welfare state”. The left wishes to fuel economic recovery through growth, including increasing working hours by 12 minutes per day and boosting public investment. The economic situation perhaps does not do any favours for the government, but the Liberals are generally perceived by voters as being the most fiscally responsible. What is, however, hurting the government is its long tenure. It has governed for nearly ten years, which is generally the upper-limit for governments in Denmark, which has been incumbent-friendly since the 1970s. The mood is for change, and the government is increasingly perceived as being grubby opportunists without any ideas who slide their feet on everything in order to gain power.

Within each of the main coalitions, the largest forces remain at their weak anemic 2007 levels and both are even expected to drop below that. That is particularly bad news for the Social Democrats, whose 2007 result was its worst result since 1909. The leader of the opposition and perhaps future Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is not particularly inspiring and has faced scandals of her own recently with questions over her British husband’s tax records in Denmark. Furthermore, she does poorly in polls about the ‘best leader’: she places third, with Lars Løkke Rasmussen placing first (though not with fantastic numbers: 20%). If she does win, it will be far more by default than anything else.

SF and DF could have been expected to gain even more this year following its record-high results in the 2009 elections. SF in particular was looking quite strong in the past few months (13-16% in polls) and its leader Villy Søvndal is very popular. At this point, both parties would lose support from their record-highs of 2007. This is a shaky conclusion in DF’s case, given its tendency to under poll by up to 1.5%. In SF’s case, its shedding of up to 3% is confirmed by most pollsters. SF’s problem is that it peaked too early, in 2008-2009, and has been unable to sustain those high levels of support. Its move to become more ‘responsible’ in fiscal issues has been coldly received by its more radical voters, while the party performed poorly in a debate over immigration reform recently (introducing a point-system) where its position was perceived to be close to the government’s position. It has lost its more radical voters to Ø, which is on track for its best result ever, and its more moderate ‘café latte’ voters to RV which has a charismatic leader and clear, well-articulated positions on major economic and social issues. These loses have not been compensated with minimal gains at S’ expense.

DF is unpredictable, because, as I said, they tend to under poll like most of the far-right. DF’s high standing might be wearing of some as immigration and Muslims are not as important in the economic-centered politics of today. It may also suffer a bit of old backlash from some of its working-class voters after it voted in favour of an austerity budget in 2010 (its poll ratings then slid to 11% or so). It is likely that DF, however, will end up doing roughly as well as they did in 2007.

C is going to suffer a major rout, losing about half of its seats. It was hurt significantly by the poor leadership of Lene Espersen (she resigned in January 2011), under whose leadership C’s numbers fell from 10% to 5%. It has yet to significantly recover most of its lost voters under the leadership of Lars Barfoed. One of C’s main problems is that it has lost a lot of its support (the bulk of it, in fact) to the Liberal Alliance, which, under the right-wing leadership of Anders Samuelsen has bounced up to 6% support on a platform which appeals to many affluent, professional suburban C voters (or young libertarians): major tax cuts with a dose of social liberalism and opposition to DF.

All polls in this campaign have given the left a lead in votes and seats. The last polls, as aforementioned, give it between 91 and 92 seats. The closest it has ever been is 89 seats to 86 in the left’s favour. The government would need 89 seats from the 175 Danish seats in order to be ensured victory with the likely 3-1 split in favour of the left in the North Atlantic. No poll has come close to giving it 89.

If the left wins, the most likely option is that Helle Thorning-Schmidt will form a ‘AB’ government with the Radicals, supported from the outside by SF and to a lesser extent by Ø. The ABFØ option is the most likely outcome of the election, but there is a possibility that negotiations will be rendered more difficult by major economic differences between the Radicals and SF. At the extreme, there is a small possibility that ABF negotiations will breakdown and the Radicals might be enticed by the right to join a centre-right coalition, perhaps even led by the Radicals like between 1968 and 1971. That is more of a threat used by the Radicals than anything serious, given how much DF and RV hate each other.

note: I will be blogging about Norwegian local elections shortly, and the Spanish elections guide will be updated in a few days time.


Posted on September 14, 2011, in Denmark, Election Preview, Greenland, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Final polls:
    A 44-46
    V 42-45
    O 19-23
    F 17-19
    B 17
    Ø 10-13
    C 10-11
    I 9

    Left 90 or 92, Right 83 or 85

  2. Very good article, as always, but a small correction. The presumption in the Danish press has been, for a few years, that the Socialist People’s Party will be in government if the left wins. The big question has actually been whether the Social Liberals will join a government with the Socialist People’s Party considering their diverging economic positions from the Social Democrats and Socialists.

    Considering recent statements (and the pact they have made with the Conservatives to ‘cooperate across the centre’) it seems to me that the Social Liberals are preparing to support a minority SD/SF government. The SD/SF government should actually be in a pretty enviable position as they will have the Unity List on one side and the Social Liberals on the other propping them up. Using this to their advantage they should be able to work things towards a decent median ground on most issues.

  1. Pingback: Election Preview: Denmark 2011 (via World Elections) « Martijn in Copenhagen

  2. Pingback: Denmark 2011 « World Elections

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