ELECTION 2015 : Liberals and populists unite against the left

The new minority government faces four years of balancing the needs of four parties. As it stands now, its legacy will be tighter immigration and lower benefits and taxes

There are 179 seats in the Danish parliament, but only 34 of them will rule Denmark for the next four years. The liberal party Venstre has decided to go it alone, supported by the remaining three parties in the right-wing ‘blue block’, after they collectively won a majority 90 seats in the June election.

Venstre leader Lars Løkke Rasmussen will resume as prime minister, four years after he lost the role to Helle Thorning-Schmidt and the Social Democrats. But he returns a weakened man. Not only has his party lost 13 of their 47 seats, Rasmussen has also struggled to recover from personal scandals around his use of party funds and his expensive, taxpayer-sponsored travel while chairman of the Global Green Growth Institute. The pressure is on to redeem himself and make this government work.

It must seem odd to outside eyes that Rasmussen doesn’t even lead the largest party in the winning block (see graphic on opposite page). That honour befell the Danish People’s Party (DF), which surged 8.8 percentage points to take 21.1 percent of the vote and become the second largest party in parliament.

It must seem even weirder that the former ruling Social Democrat party were the election’s absolute winners, gaining 1.5 percentage points to win 26.3 percent of the vote. But because their left wing ‘red’ block could only secure a total of 89 seats, Helle Thorning-Schmidt had to say goodbye as prime minister, and has also decided to step down as party leader.

Weird it may seem but on Sunday, June 28, Rasmussen presented his new minority government – representing only 19.5% of the electorate – to the public (see ‘A government forms’, opposite page). His 16 ministers give us an indication of things to come, with hardnosed members of Venstre’s inner circle in the top jobs.

Most notable is the appointment of Inger Støjberg as Minister for Foreigners, Integration and Housing. A proponent for tighter immigration regulations, in June she promised on Facebook that any coming Venstre government “would not continue the government’s weak immigration policies”.

The appointment of the former chairman of the employer’s association, Jørn Neergaard Larsen, as Employment Minister – the only minister the party drafted in from outside parliament – should concern unions. In April, Larsen proposed cutting social benefits to encourage more people to join the labour market, calling Denmark a “loser country” when compared to its neighbours, Sweden and Germany.

Venstre can only rule as long as a majority of MPs do not oppose their government. This will require strong cooperation with both their parliamentary supporters on the right wing, as well as across the aisle.

These compromises are outlined in the government platform the party released on the same day as it presented its ministers. For their fiscally-liberal partners Liberal Alliance and the Conservatives, the government committed to a labour market reform. In its first phase, they will introduce a benefits cap to limit the total amount a person can receive from the state when accepting unemployment benefits. In the second phase the government will try and reduce income taxes by five percent.

There were early signs of conflict in the right wing when DF’s leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl said he was not interested in supporting tax cuts. His party also wants to maintain robust investment in the welfare state while the liberal right wing parties want to see cuts.

Given DF’s strong anti-immigration platform, Støjberg’s appointment should make them happy. So too should the government’s plans to make it harder to achieve Danish citizenship and reduce benefits for asylum seekers and immigrants who have been in the country for fewer than eight years. But the question will be how much the party can compromise its pro-welfare agenda in exchange for tightened immigration.

Liberals vs populists
Ultimately, that is at the heart of the conflict in the right wing, and a major reason that DF chose not to join Venstre in government. While DF is a pro-welfare populist party, the other three right-wing parties are liberal at heart.

Simply put, DF only belongs to the blue block because of their stance on immigration. Without that, their pro-welfare and public spending agenda would find more suitable companionship in the left wing. But so hostile are they to foreigners, and Islam in particular, that they would rather cooperate with the right to keep borders as closed as possible.

DF’s decision to stay out of government might have disappointed many voters and resulted in calls of cowardice from left-wing opponents but the party is right to be wary of going into government. The two parties that suffered most at this election were the left-wing Socialist People’s Party (SF) and the centrist Radikale Venstre. Both parties joined the Social Democrats in the 2011 government and both have now lost half their voters.

To the public, Dahl explained that his party stayed out of government because that’s where they would have the most influence. This puts DF in the same position as they were in between 2001 and 2011, when they supported a right-wing government in exchange for massive restrictions on immigration. The difference is that this time around they have almost twice as many seats to play with and so will naturally want more.

DF’s long game
If we had to pick a winner at this election, it would be DF. Their campaign was a strategic masterpiece. While Rasmussen and Thorning-Schmidt battled it out in four televised debates during the election campaign, DF’s leader, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, his party mounted a kind of anti-campaign. Large billboards proclaimed, “You know what we stand for”.

The voters remembered DF’s call for banning ownership of satellite dishes by immigrants, ending English-language education at university, sending asylum seekers to Kenya, moving Ramadan to the summer holidays, conferring citizenship only on people with at least one Danish parent and pulling out of UN conventions. Some of these were official policies, others just proposals or ideas told to journalists seemingly on a whim and then withdrawn. It doesn’t matter – the voters remembered.

International media like to call DF right-wing or far-right but that doesn’t accurately portray their voters. Policy proposals, such as the creation of an animal welfare police force and the easing of access to unemployment benefits, appeal to the socially-minded. But does immigration or welfare best explain the party’s success?

One theory points to a growing rural-urban divide. DF became the largest party in rural areas of south Jutland and west Zealand, leading some to postulate that voters here are not benefitting from globalisation in the same way as urban areas, pushing them into the hands of anti-immigration parties. A reduction in public services and the closing of schools and transport in these areas may also have increased resentment towards power brokers in Copenhagen.

But Ralf Pittelkow, editor of the populist news blog Den Korte Avis, rejected this ‘elitist’ analysis of the election. DF voters aren’t social losers who cast protest votes out of a sense of social injustice and abandonment by politicians in Copenhagen, he argues, they are just worried about immigration.

“Most people who voted for Dansk Folkeparti will in all likelihood point to immigration policy, border control and limiting EU power as important justifications,” he writes.

Pittelkow adds that DF’s success in South Jutland should not be seen in isolation – the party did well across Denmark, including areas close to left-wing Copenhagen. They won in Greve and Solrød, working-class coastal areas south of the city, and they came second in the western suburbs of Høje Taastrup, Albertslund and Ishøj.

New vision needed
DF’s rise also indicates that voters may be tiring of the parties who have ruled for the past fifteen years. Both right and left-wing governments pursued reforms that slimmed the public sector, cutting benefits in the name of responsible economic policy. The reforms may have kept Denmark within the three percent deficit allowed by the EU and brought the country out of the financial crisis with modest growth, but politics sometimes needs to represent more than the technocratic management of public coffers. Voters want vision, too.

Challenging the status quo on welfare is Liberal Alliance, which increased its share of the vote by campaigning to cut taxes and the public sector without reducing services, a claim no other party is willing to make.

Challenging the status quo on economic growth is the Alternative party, who stormed into parliament on their first try with 4.8 percent of the vote. In both Copenhagen and Aarhus, they won over 10 percent. They want to commit Denmark to a fully sustainable future while also promoting entrepreneurship and business. Dismissed by the right wing as ‘the loony left’, they are a party that refuses to put economic growth ahead of caring for the climate. Many voters agree, and think it is possible to grow sustainably without increasing our consumption of resources.

A turbulent four years lies ahead. Danish politics is in a deeply complicated place but it is revealing a fascinating new fragmentation of the populace between the left, the populists and the liberals, as well as a genuine desire for new solutions to welfare and economic growth. M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

Facebook comments