Red Copenhagen

Reinout Bosch

Analysis of the Danish Municipal Elections

Huge windfall for the left in Denmark as the Red-Green Alliance picks up a quarter of the vote in Copenhagen. In the remainder of the country, the municipal elections show small gains for the left, while the ruling Social Democratic Party sustains heavy losses in the four biggest cities. A struggle for the far-right vote between the Danish People’s Party and the newer New Right party leaves the former with heavier losses than the gains of the latter. Overall, the Conservative People’s Party pulls the longest straw and comes out of the elections as the strongest party. This cements the party’s emerging position as the leading party of the right.

Stakes were high for the Social Democratic government in the run-up to the municipal and regional elections in Denmark, which were held on 16 November. As is always the case in elections, it can be hard to discern local issues from national ones. As the Danish public readied themselves for the elections, they were looking at a situation where a national snap election for parliament could just as well have been called. Given the result, this now seems improbable.

As summer approached, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s Social Democratic government was looking strong, having handled the coronavirus lockdown better than most of her European counterparts. A tough stance on immigration combined with a lockdown-induced return to Keynesian economics kept the right-wing opposition in check. Squabbling internally, the biggest parties in the bloc, the centre-right Liberal Party (Venstre) and the far-right Danish People’s Party, both struggled with their credibility among the public. In their place, the Conservative People’s Party, a junior partner for the last quarter of a century, has blossomed, while the even further-right New Right is slowly taking over as the leading voice of xenophobic nationalism in the kingdom.

Throughout the pandemic, the left parties—the Socialist People’s Party and the Red-Green Alliance—were slowly gaining ground, as a result of the collapse of the green party, The Alternative, as well as missteps by the government. The Social Democrats were marred by the clumsy handling of internal matters stemming from the forced closure of the mink fur industry during the pandemic. This slowly ate away at support for the government.  

Nurses and Teachers

These political changes at the national level were expected to be reflected in the local elections, even though local issues would obviously mitigate the overall situation. Having adopted the far right’s critique of immigrants, the Social Democrats succeeded in toppling the immigration issue from the dominant position it has held in all debates in recent decades. Spurred on by the generous subsidies during the lockdowns, public interest during this election swung back to different welfare issues. Here, the state of the healthcare system and the handling of childcare took centre stage. Both issues are connected with recruitment problems and related conflicts over low pay for nurses and teachers. These have been conflict issues at the national level in recent years, but both took prominent position in the 16 November elections, as childcare is run by the municipalities and healthcare is run by the regions.

The Final Score

Emerging as a clear loser from the election were the Social Democrats, who saw losses in many municipalities. Especially in the four biggest cities the party was hit hard, seeing its vote recede by about 10 percent.

The change of positions between the main bourgeois parties at the national level was easily discernible in this election. The Liberal Party had an acceptable election due to the loss of Social Democrat votes. But the big winners were clearly the conservatives, who gained new votes in nearly every part of the country.

Further to the right the opposite scenario played out. The crisis-ridden Danish People’s Party lost half their seats and sustained losses in all of the 98 municipalities. This was partly due to the challenge from the even more far-right New Right, for whom this was the first serious local election challenge. The New Right did not succeed in picking up all of the shed votes, increasing their local representation by 63, while the Danish People’s Party relinquished 133 positions.

From Red to Redder

In the capital, a clear leftwards swing was observable. In a strange set-up, the city has two municipalities. The City of Copenhagen, where the 800,000 inhabitants have awarded the mayoral chain to the Social Democrats for a century, and completely surrounded by the former, the much richer municipality of Frederiksberg, where the Conservative People’s Party has played the same hegemonic role. On the eve of the election, both strongholds were at risk.

In Copenhagen proper, the main challenge was posed by the Red-Green Alliance. Already the city’s second biggest party, and having won the most votes at the parliamentary election in 2019, it was confident that this was its chance to dominate the city.

The party had placed Line Barfod, a respected former MP, centre stage. The Social Democrats on the other hand had to rely on the less well known Sofie Hæstorp, who was drafted in as their main candidate when former Lord Mayor Frank Jensen was forced to resign due to a MeToo scandal. His clumsy handling of an apology—“Having been a part of the problem, I would like to become a part of the solution” (TV2 Lorry, 17 October 2020)—came to stand as an illustration of the party’s general handling of errors.

It is hard to disentangle how much the resignation of the lord mayor and party vice-chairman cost the Social Democrats, but it is clear that it was just another example of the power overreach for which the prime minister had been under fire right up until the elections.

In Frederiksberg, the party’s former MP, and shadow chancellor, Pelle Dragsted was running for a seat. The public rewarded this initiative with an increase in the party vote to 17.5 percent (up 5.4 percentage points). This massive increase, which made the party the second biggest in the municipality, together with good political craftsmanship secured a social democratic change of mayor in what was hitherto known as the conservative crown jewel.

Affordable Housing and a Greener City

In Copenhagen, the political debate centred on the city’s spatial and economic development. A general housing crisis has sent rent prices up, while the conduct of the Blackstone development firm[1] (owned by Goldman Sachs) has made American capital the main villain in the public imagination. For a decade, the Social Democrats have tried to come up with a solution, but these have either foundered on public resistance or been useless as they rely on the market to fix the problem.

Then Lord Mayor Frank Jensen and then Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen (Venstre) conjured up a proposal for a solution in the autumn of 2018: a giant island in the harbour, that would become home to 35,000 inhabitants. The road to financing this endeavour was the same one that had driven the city’s development for years: borrowing money for big infrastructure developments, and paying off the loans by selling municipal land plots to the highest bidder. Critics said that this was exactly the policy that had got Copenhagen into this housing pickle in the first place.

Lynetteholmen, as the imagined island was named, drew criticism from the start, from a democratic and economic viewpoint as much as from environmental and climate NGOs. The latter were simultaneously locked in another battle with the Social Democrats over another housing matter, namely the proposal by the majority on the city council to build housing on Amager Fælled, Copenhagen’s biggest park. Both issues bring together discussions about housing, climate and the environment, a combination that has served to strengthen the left.

Tectonic Shifts

The changes in the capital are a consequence of a change in demographics that has been going on for a while. As a result of rising housing prices, working class families with strong ties to the Social Democrats have been forced out of the city, with a richer university-educated demographic taking their place. The bourgeoisie proper does not tend to live in the capital, being concentrated in the bordering municipalities where taxes are lower. This therefore leaves room for the liberal vote, which splits its support between the different socialist parties and the social-liberals. In a calculated attempt to bolster national support, the Social Democrats have at a national level embraced xenophobia and favoured the countryside over the capital. This has cost them dearly with this dominant part of the electorate.

While the Social Democrats’ star is fading in Copenhagen, and a much redder one is on the rise, this has not affected the position of lord mayor. Although the Red-Green Alliance has become the biggest party, it has little support outside its own ranks. A deal was thus reached between the Social Democrats and the right-wing parties, awarding the former the keys to the city.

Remarkable Results

On the island of Bornholm (40,000 inhabitants), an individual success story was playing out. A disastrous municipal budget pushed forward by the ruling Social Democrats and the Liberal Party resulted simultaneously in a cutback to social security and investment in a new town hall at the hefty price of DKK 150 million (EUR 20 million). Being left out of the deal, Red-Green Alliance member and deputy mayor of the island Morten Riis became the face of opposition. Having serving on the city council for some years, being from the island, having a working class background and support, as well as having served a week as mayor, all helped fuel his rise in popularity. In a school of presumed two-faced politicians, he was seen as a trustworthy candidate. The electorate awarded the Red-Green Alliance 23.1 percent of the vote (up 16.8 percentage points). Just as in Copenhagen, this did not result in direct political power for the left. On the island as in the capital, a left-wing candidate seemed too daunting. Instead, the conservatives gained another mayor.

While the Red-Green Alliance has never held a mayoral position, the Socialist People’s Party has for many years had changing positions. This election they held on to their only mayor on Langeland, securing this with a third of the votes on the island of 12,000 inhabitants.

[1] The firm has since changed its name in Denmark to Kereby (“Care city”) in a desperate attempt to break with the negative stigma it had acquired (, 25 November 2019)

About the author

Reinout Bosch is a social worker based in Copenhagen. He is one of the initiators of the Institute for Marxist Analysis and a member of the leadership of the Copenhagen branch of the Red-Green Alliance. He has recently published a book on historical materialism in the age of post-modernism in Danish.