News Øresund, Sofie Paisley / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
News Øresund, Sofie Paisley / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Outgoing government: Infighting lead to the fall of the Danish right

Kasper Tonsberg Schlie, The Democracy in Europe Organisation (DEO)

Since its election in 2015, Denmark’s rightist government had been struggling to keep control of a chaotic coalition. The liberal party Venstre, led by Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, insisted on keeping the minority government afloat by making a long range of devastating concessions to the ultra-liberalists in Liberal Alliance and the nationalists in Dansk Folkeparti. Demands for extreme measures against immigration and tax cuts for the wealthiest Danes shook the foundations of the government and caused voters to diffuse to the extreme right – or even towards the left. These factors contributed to creating the perfect storm for the right: During the past 12 months, the centre-left parties have been heading towards a solid victory.

Since the last elections, Enhedslisten – the Red-Green Alliance, have consistently criticized the rightist government’s failure to address climate change, its targeting of immigrants and the gradual erosion of welfare benefits. The 2015 elections gave the Red-Green Alliance a relatively strong mandate (7.8%). However, the rightist coalition kept the Danish left out of almost all key negotiations.

Since 2001, all Danish elections have been dominated by topics related to refugees and immigrants – it was key to forming all governments. During this election campaign, the topic failed to mobilize as many voters as previously. Instead climate change moved to the top of the agenda for 11 out of 13 parties, who all competed to offer the highest CO2-reduction targets. Nevertheless, the opinion polls hardly changed during the 4-week campaign.

Election results – key parties

Enhedslisten/Red-Green Alliance (socialist): 6.9%. The party lost one percentage point since 2015 but seem set to support a social democratic minority government. The loss may be due to the party running for the European elections for the first time, where they secured a seat promising a more “democratic” course for the EU. This alienated many voters from the People’s Movement Against the EU, who didn’t secure a mandate of their own. Furthermore, The Red-Green Alliance rotates MEPs out of parliament after 8 years, leading to the exit of a number of very experienced and popular politicians.

Socialistisk Folkeparti (socialist): 7.7%. Focusing on climate change, the socialists almost doubled their result and will be the closest partner of the social democrats.

Socialdemokratiet (social democrats): 25.9%. Denmark’s largest party didn’t succeed in improving their result from the successful results of 2015 but will very likely form the minority centre-left government.
Radikale Venstre (social liberals): 8.6%. A huge victory for the social-liberal party, which will give them a strong mandate to push for more lenient policies towards refugees.

Venstre (liberal): 23.4%. The outgoing Prime Minister’s party actually improved their result significantly (up from 19.5%) but will not be able to form a new coalition.

Dansk Folkeparti (nationalist): 8.7%. The most dramatic result of the elections. The extreme right party is down from 21.1% and will lose their decisive influence on the government.

Nye Borgerlige (nationalist): 2.4%. Even more extreme than Dansk Folkeparti, the newcomers from Nye Borgerlige will make the discourse about immigrants even more radical.

Commentary: Triumph or tragedy for the Danish left?

Let’s be blunt: It was a solid victory for the four parties that aim to form a new centre-left coalition and rule Denmark the next four years. Denmark’s next Prime Minister will most likely be the social democrats 41-year-old Mette Frederiksen, who took the stage among her party comrades and said: “These elections have been about welfare and your voice has been clear: From tonight, welfare will be on the top of the agenda again”.

In fact, welfare was not the most important reason why the Danish centre-left grabbed the parliamentary majority from the outgoing liberal-conservative government. Mette Frederiksen and the social democrats have attracted tens of thousands of voters, because they copied the most crucial political discourse in contemporary Danish politics: A tough stance towards immigrants and refugees.

Venstre (the liberal party) swept to power in 2001 because they accepted the nationalist policies of the far right in exchange for unwavering support for their government. This strategy kept them firmly in power from 2001-2011 and again from 2015 until last night. The centre-right governments have made the country wealthier, but also contributed to eroding the humanistic perception of Danish politics – our coveted soft power. Write “Denmark” in the search field of any major international newspaper and most articles will be about the previous government’s draconian laws against refugees and immigrants.

During the last few years, the social democrats have eroded the power base of the liberals by systematically copying the policies of the national Danish People’s party. This has made thousands of voters return to the social democrats and made thousands more shift to the far left (Red-Green Alliance and Socialists) and the social-liberals. The new exodus has not bothered Mette Frederiksen. The net result was clear from the elections: The combined result for all four centre-left parties was enough to secure a majority of 91 out of Parliament’s 179 seats. If the party Alternativet (pro-climate, pro-immigration, pro-Europe) add their mandates – it will be a solid majority of 96 seats.

Demands for more lenient immigrant policy

However, copying rightist policies will come with a heavy price and possibly make the prospective government implode before it really takes off. The largest Danish newspaper, Politiken, hit the target with its headline this morning: “The Red-Greens win the elections, but will Mette Frederiksen be able form a coalition and rule?” The next weeks, perhaps months, the social democrats will be met with a long list of clear demands by the three parties (The Red-Green Alliance, the Socialist People’s Party and the Social-Liberals) that form their parliamentary support. Most crucially, these parties are most unlikely to accept a continuation of the former government’s immigration policies.

The Red-Green Alliance demands better conditions for children of rejected asylum seekers, who often live with their parents in worn-down detention centers – in one case right next to a military shooting range. Furthermore, the informal leader of the Red-Green Alliance, Pernille Skipper, has demanded that Denmark resumes its participation in the UN’s quota refugee programme and ends its policy of decreased benefits for refugees.

“Climate fools”

The government’s policy on climate change will be another sticking point. The three potential government parties all campaigned intensively for more ambitious climate targets. When the far-right Danish People’s Party failed to get more than one mandate in the recent European elections, the former party leader, Pia Kjærsgaard, quipped on Twitter: The loss was due to all the “climate fools” provoking the deepest fears of the voters. This made even more voters flee to the centre-left: Climate change has moved to the very top of the political agenda and has become a winning topic regardless of ideology.

All three prospective coalition partners demand that the social democrats agree to introduce a “Climate Act” where the government articulates legally binding measures to combat climate change. During the election campaign, the social democrats promised a CO2-reduction of 60% in 2030 – the three support parties have pledged a reduction of 70%. But this is not their only difference: The improvement of public transport, taxes on cars and environmental restrictions on farming will also be hotly contended topics.

Demands for better welfare

The last of the three big sticking points of the coming negotiations will be the welfare state. Almost two decades of liberal policies have eroded part of the universal welfare state, that consecutive social democratic governments constructed during the second half of the 20th century. On the far left, the Red-Green Alliance have put forward several demands. The “welfare ceiling” that sets a maximum amount for combined benefits that vulnerable citizens can receive from the state, should be scrapped. Secondly, the state should invest massively in education and the country’s criticized daycare sector. These demands are largely echoed by the Socialist People’s Party but are met with clear resistance from the social liberals in Radikale Venstre. On the contrary, the social liberals are rallying for continued liberal policies that will secure solid economic growth in the years to come.

All in all, these three major themes – immigration, climate and welfare – will expose clear fault lines between the four parties in the prospective centre-left government. The Red-Green Alliance have been in exactly the same situation before: In 2011 they accepted a social democratic coalition accord that allowed the social democrats to continue the largely liberal financial policies of the centre-right. This led to infighting within the party and disillusionment among their voters. Denmark is facing “historically difficult negotiations” according to the newspaper Berlingske.

Now, the major dilemma for the left is as old as parliamentary democracy itself: Should the parties be flexible and give major concessions on the three sticking points or stand firm on their principles and risk new elections that could result in a quick return of the old foe?