Legislative elections were held in Denmark on September 15, 2011. All 179 members of Denmark’s unicameral parliament, the Folketing, were up for reelection. I previewed the contenders and issues at stake in this election in a preview post a few days ago. Denmark has been governed for the past ten-years by a centre-right coalition led by the Venstre (Liberal Party) and Conservatives and supported most controversially by the far-right Danish People’s Party and, to a lesser extent, by the Liberal Alliance. This coalition is led since 2009 by Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen.
Turnout was 87.74%, slightly higher than in 2007. Denmark has very high turnout, even though it doesn’t have mandatory voting (I suppose its turnout is even higher than some places where they have loosely enforced mandatory voting!). The results are as follows:
V – Venstre/Liberals 26.73% (+0.47%) winning 47 seats (+1)
A – Social Democrats 24.81% (-0.66%) winning 44 seats (-1)
O – Danish People’s Party 12.32% (-1.54%) winning 22 seats (-3)
B – Radical Left/Social Liberals 9.50% (+4.38%) winning 17 seats (+8)
F – Socialist People’s Party 9.20% (-3.84%) winning 16 seats (-7)
Ø – Unity List 6.68% (+4.51%) winning 12 seats (+8)
Y – Liberal Alliance 4.98% (+2.17%) winning 9 seats (+4)
C – Conservative People’s Party 4.94% (-5.45%) winning 8 seats (-10)
K – Christian Democrats 0.79% (-0.08%) winning 0 seats (±0)
Independent candidacies 0.05% (+0.03%) winning 0 seats (±0)
North Atlantic mandates 4 (3 left, 1 right)
Left (ABFØ) 50.19% (+4.40%) winning 89 seats (+8) [92 with North Atlantic]
Right (VOCIK) 49.76% (-4.43%) winning 86 seats (-8) [87 with North Atlantic]
The left has won Denmark. The right-wing VCO era, which began in 2001, has been closed. Those are the headlines of this election. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the leader of the Social Democrats since 2005, will become Prime Minister at the helm of the first left-wing government since 2001. The election was very closely fought and it was mildly suspenseful even on election night, but in the end, a combination of voter fatigue with an old government, an economic crisis and the decrepitude of the government’s junior partner all came together to give victory to the left.
When you look at the results in more detail, last night’s victory is much more the victory of the Danish left than the victory of the Social Democrats – in Denmark as in the rest of Scandinavia very much a dominant party up until the 1990s. Indeed, this victory could be considered a pyrrhic victory as the main left-wing party won a very poor result. The Social Democrats continued their slow inexorable decline to win their worst result since 1903! A fact that is so significant that even the usually useless generalizations of the foreign mass media pointed it out. The poor showing of the Social Democrats reflects the general uninspirational/boring image it projects, a problem faced by most of its European counterparts. Helle Thorning-Schmidt is not particularly charismatic or wildly popular and ever since her 2005 election to SD’s leadership she has juggled with the discontent of SD’s left-wing which is hardly fond of the centrist Thorning-Schmidt, derogatorily nicknamed “Gucci Helle” for her apparent un-socialist taste in high fashion and her comfortable middle-class upbringing. The tax evasion case of her British husband, Neil Kinnock’s son, did not help matters much either. If the left won last night, it won because of the very strong showing of two of its components which rather ironically are located at the right and left extremities of this broad “ABFØ” coalition.
The Social Liberals (or Radicals) led by Margrethe Vestager was the first major winner of the elections. Her party won its best result since 1973 and emerges as the second-largest force behind the Social Democrats in the new left-wing governing coalition. The Radicals, who had done nearly as well in 2005, had done poorly in 2007 when a lot of their intellectual, urban clientele (the so-called ‘café latte’ electorate) defected to the Socialists (SF) who in 2007 did extremely well with that crowd and propelled them to a strong 13% showing. These bourgeois-bohemians are quite left-wing on issues such as morals, the environment, immigration and integration but they’re not as left-wing on issues such as taxation, maintaining the juicy advantages of the welfare state and most fiscal matters. The Radicals appealed to them with a clear and coherent program and record on those issues, and in doing so managed to win over the moderate wing of the 2007 SF electorate (well, most of it).
At the other end of the left-wing spectrum, the Unity List-Red Greens (Ø) have been kicking since the late 1980s but they had never won over 3.4% of the vote or 6 seats. In 2007, they did rather poorly winning only 2.2% and 4 seats. The Unity List had been formed in 1988 as an electoral alliance of the old communists (DKP), trots, Maoists and socialists. In recent years, they have moved far closer to environmentalism and similar hip left-wing issues (apparently enough for the clueless foreign media to call them “the Greens”) though still maintaining some rather dogmatic left-wing positions such as the nationalization of Lego and Maersk, alleged support for the FARC and PFLP and the goal of a utopic “communist society without classes”. Recently, the party has modernized without, it claims, moving right-wards: a little comment aimed at SF and SD. The charisma, likeability and thus popularity of Ø’s unofficial leader, 27-year old Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen has also helped matters quite a bit. She won the second-highest number of “personal votes” in the election after Lars Løkke. At the same time, SF’s shift towards the right and “responsibility” alienated some of SF’s more left-wing voters and drove them into the arms of Ø.
Within the left, SF was, as we’ve seen, the other major loser. It had done very well in 2007 (13%) and its fantastic result in the 2009 European elections (15%) made another strong result this year very much a possibility. But SF peaked too early, failed to cash in on the popularity of its leader Villy Søvndal and alienated its left by moving more towards the right and general political moderation. Its legislative performance on topics such as immigration also left much to be desired and contributed to the alienation of its rather broad 2007 coalition which included, most remarkably in Copenhagen (SF had won most of the inner city in 2007), academics, artists, young professionals, Muslism and the rest of the ‘café latte’. Ironically, despite its poor showing, SF might now be more than ever in its history in a position of power and influence. Indeed, for the first time in its history, it will likely enter government with Søvndal a potential finance minister.
On the right, the governing Liberals (V) had a surprisingly good election for themselves. They will not be re-entering government, but they held their ground remarkably well and remained both the largest party in the Folkting and marginally increased its vote share (and won an additional seat) – despite the fact that their incumbent leader, Lars Løkke, does not have the charisma of his famous predecessor, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. V benefited from the collapse of its junior partner in government since 2001, the Conservatives. The gain of C’s voters about compensated for other loses by V, mostly to SD. V gained the most ground in Zealand around Copenhagen’s affluent northern suburbs where C traditionally does best. In contrast, in lost ground mostly to SD in Jutland, where the party system is less atomized than it is around Copenhagen.
What did in the right (in part) was the collapse of the Conservatives, who lost over half of their votes and seats and won their worst result in their history with only 4.9% and eight place overall (instead of fifth in 2007). The Conservatives performed badly in government and their cacophonous and incompetent leadership brought this electoral armageddon upon itself. Its new leader since January 2011, Lars Barfoed, failed to lift the party up from the ditch in which his hapless predecessor Lene Espersen had driven C into.
The Conservatives found their affluent anti-tax suburban base hijacked in sort by the Liberal Alliance, the old New Alliance, which under Anders Samuelsen drove to the right and adopted a very libertarian/classical liberal economic agenda and in doing so managed to appeal to part of C’s affluent base in addition to younger libertarian types. In contrast with the Naser Khader New Alliance in 2007 which had been a primarily inner-city liberal party concentrated in downtown Copenhagen, the more right-wing Liberal Alliance under Samuelsen became a suburban/north Copenhagen party. It indeed did best where C used to do best, winning, for example, its best result (10.2%) in Gentofte, a Conservative stronghold since the turn of the last century. C lost other voters to V and the Radicals.
For the first time since its foundation, the far-right Danish People’s Party (DF) which had been so influential and powerful since 2001 because of its parliamentary support for the VC government, lost votes. It lost only marginally, from 13.9% to 12.3%, but it still lost ground nonetheless. DF’s growth was checked in 2010 when it voted in favour of an austerity budget and, in doing so, reneged the party’s left-wing economic views (which are left-wing as long as you’re white). The left would say that it all shows how hollow and fake all of DF’s apparent left-wing economics really is, and for some of DF’s working-class base it did just that. There is also the matter that in an election fought almost entirely over economics and not over immigration (the last three elections, especially 2001, all saw immigration play a major role) is not favourable to a party like DF which takes most of its political capital from its anti-immigration positions. This should not be interpreted as meaning that there is a general move back towards pro-immigration and integration positions in the European country with some of the toughest immigration regulations. There isn’t. Helle Thorning-Schmidt pledged that her government would uphold or only slightly modify the bulk of the VC government’s tough immigration laws (passed with DF support, of course) most notably the famous (infamous?) 24-year rule.
The government’s majority of 3 out of the 175 Danish seats will be increased to a majority of 5 with the North Atlantic mandates from Greenland and the Faroe Island, the Danish self-governing territories in the North Atlantic Ocean. In Greenland, the governing socialist separatist Inuit Ataqatigiit won 42.28% against 36.67% for the social democratic Siumut. Both of these parties, Greenland’s two main parties, will hold their seats (one each). Compared to 2007, that is a major increase in the vote of the governing Inuit Ataqatigiit (+8.8%) but also Siumut (+5.3%). The agrarian Feeling of Community won 7.46%, down from 18.9%. The unionist Democrats won 12.5%, down from 16.2%. In the Faroe Islands, the governing Union Party (right-wing unionist) increased its vote share by 7% to win 30.8% and hold its seat. The separatist Republic Party, which had won 25% in 2007 and first place, lost 6% (winning 19.4%) and lost its seat to the unionist Social Democrats who won 21%, up marginally from 2007. The separatist People’s Party and Self-Government Party also lost support as did the unionist Centre Party. The overall distribution of mandates there thus remains 3-1 for the left, but rather 3-1 anti-independence instead of a 2-2 separatist/anti-independence split in 2007.
The dominant patterns of Danish electoral geography remained similar. V did best in rural southern Jutland, a conservative and religious area. It did, however, lose some support there to the Social Democrats. The Social Democrats in Jutland did best in the urban (and historically industrial) centres of Aalborg, Randers and Aarhus. It did, however, do rather poorly in its old strongholds in the Triangle area (Vejle-Kolding-Fredericia) in southeastern Jutland where it had been swept out of power in the 2009 local elections by V. On Fyn, the left’s base is traditionally the city of Odense. On Lolland (yes, that’s the name of the island: there is also a city on Fyn called Middelfart), SD gained back some ground lost to SF in 2007 thanks to a popular local SF candidate. Lolland is rural, but the sugar industry on the island is quite labour-intensive and has led to a more working-class feel than one could expect. The city of Nakskov is also a major harbour.
Copenhagen does contrast starkly with other Scandinavian capitals such as Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki because of its very stark lean to the left. It is perhaps because unlike those cities, Copenhagen has traditionally concentrated Danish industry and bee far more of an industrial city than a bourgeois city like Stockholm. In Copenhagen district this year, the Social Democrats emerged on top – relatively speaking – with 19% with the Radicals and Ø taking 16.7% and 16.6% respectively. V placed fourth with 15.2%, while SF lost a lot of ground (-8.5%) and won just 12.4%. You can find two great maps of Copenhagen here and here. In 2007, SF had dominated throughout the downtown core of the city (most of the -bro districts) while the Social Democrats (who lost 5% in Copenhagen this year) performed better in the more lower middle-class suburban areas outside the downtown core. That was normality, more or less, before this year’s massive atomization of the vote. The Social Democrats kept their hold on the working-class suburban districts on the outer edges of the city (where DF polls well), while V increased its support at C’s expense and did relatively well in the more old bourgeois areas of the city. The collapse of the S-SF vote benefited both the Radicals and Ø who took in various parts of the 2007 SF coalition in the city. The Radicals did best in the more upscale of these hip downtown districts, such as Indre By or Osterbro. In contrast, Ø did best in the less upscale and more ethnically diverse downtown districts. Most significantly, it absolutely dominated Nørrebro with 27.6% against 20% for RV. Nørrebro is a troubled and very ethnically diverse (a large Muslim population) district filled with artists and other intellectual hip types. Simply put, the epitome in sorts of the demographic which voted Ø this year. Ø also did well in Christianshavn (26%), a gentrified bohemian neighborhood which most notably includes Freetown Christiania.
Copenhagen’s suburbs are equally as diverse. The western and southern suburbs are some of S’s strongest areas on the island of Zealand, and they are heavily left-wing. The southern suburban communities such as Brøndby, Hvidovre and Ishøj are poor, working-class areas while the western suburbs such as Gladsaxe, Ballerup and Herlev are more lower middle-class residential communities though equally as left-wing as the southern suburbs. DF performs strongly here, but the hip left-wing parties (SF, RV, Ø) don’t perform as strongly. The northern suburbs are the stereotypical affluent bourgeois residential suburbs, and traditionally most of the bourgeoisie in and around Copenhagen have voted Conservative. The collapse of C’s vote this year benefited both V, which increased its vote share by a bit in these areas, but also the Liberal Alliance which won its best results (8-10%) in these northern suburbs (in Copenhagen, the Liberal Alliance’s best districts are also more bourgeois and affluent than they are hip or café latte).
Helle Thorning-Schmidt will become the first woman Prime Minister of Denmark, and the election has been noted in Denmark as the “victory of the three women”: Thorning-Schmidt, Vestager (RV leader) and Schmidt-Nielsen (Ø’s top gun). While in the past left-wing governments in Denmark, the last of which governed between 1993 and 2001, had been formed solely by S and the centrist Radicals, it is quite likely that in a break from the past, SF will enter government for the first time while the Radical’s participation in government is not ensured. Thorning-Schmidt and Søvndal have both moved their respective parties closer together, a move which led to the gradual moderation (or rightwards shift) of SF to make it more acceptable to the broader public and financial milieus. With SF in government, and Søvndal the likely finance minister, it is not at all certain that the centrist Radicals, historically the kingmakers or hinge party of the Danish political system, will be entering government themselves. The Radicals could find themselves backing the government from the outside. Thorning-Schmidt will need to play a careful balancing act between the vastly different economic views of her three allies: the centrist Radicals, hardly fond of high taxation or the old welfare state model; Ø far more left-wing on economic matters. Ø will not (obviously) take seats in government, but could find itself playing the role that DF played for the VC governments: a more radical party pressuring the government to move in its direction. The risk for confrontation between these factions of the new governing coalition is high. The fear is that it could lead to snap elections before the end of Parliament’s four-year mandate. The Radicals and the Conservatives, in theory rivals, moved closer to a deal during the election campaign. SF and Radicals also don’t get along very well: during the campaign, SF warned that a vote for the Radicals is a vote for tax cuts on the wealthy and spending cuts. Interestingly, SF apparently seeks to counter this right-wing influence by working with DF on economic issues, on which the far-right is allegedly left-leaning.
Perhaps the risk for confrontation is much overstated. Ø will certainly be a pressure agent on the government to compel it to move left-wards, but besides them the other parties in the coalition are all rather moderate forces. Thorning-Schmidt won the leadership of the party in 2005 on a centrist platform and has moved S closer to the right on issues such as immigration and security. Her centrist policies, furthermore, have been accepted by SF without much resistance, in a bid by SF to appear more responsible especially on fiscal issues. She has pledged to keep the bulk of the outgoing government’s tough immigration policies (though the Radicals and SF are opposed), supports the government’s customs control and backs Danish military participation in Afghanistan and Libya. The main changes are to be expected in fiscal matters. Instead of austerity, the left prefers to increase spending on the welfare state and compensate those spending increases with tax hikes on the wealthiest or new environmental, health or traffic taxes. The right warned that such a policy would run up the deficit and ruin the country’s economic competitiveness. Higher taxation could face resistance from the Radicals, but it theoretically could receive cross-coalition support from DF.