A week today Denmark will have a new Prime Minister. It will be a tight election as the polls have the left and right wing blocks running in a dead heat. So It’s far too close to call. But regardless who wins, the new parliament will represent some fundamental shifts in attitude across Danish society. It’s pretty exciting really.
Here’s my run down of the situation. A lot is educated speculation based on passive immersion in the political media over the past few months. For people reading from abroad, or those resident in Denmark but who don’t actively follow politics, I hope it gives you a general overview of what’s up. If it helps you chime in at the dinner party this weekend, I will have succeeded. If you’re laughed at, I accept no responsibility.
If you have a basic understanding of Danish politics you can skip this paragraph – here’s the basic setup. The Social Democrats control a centre-left minority government together with the centrist social liberal party, De Radikale. They are supported by two parties to the left, the Socialist People’s Party (SF) and the far left Enhedslisten. The right-wing opposition is led by the liberal party Venstre, who normally form coalition governments with De Konservative. Also present in the opposition are the populist Danish People’s Party (DF) and libertarian Liberal Alliance (LA).
Helle Thorning the favoured PM
If it were a presidential election, the Social Democrat PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt would be the clear winner. While all other parties are set to win or lose seats, her party is the only one predicted to remain stable and secure around same proportion of the vote in 2011 election – 24.8 percent. Immediately after the election, Venstre surged from 26.7% to beyond 30%, but are now polling at around 21%. The simple explanation is that Venstre leader Lars Løkke Rasmussen has been worn down by a string of personal scandals that have revealed a man careless with the finances of his party and organisations he works for.
Opposition in transition
But there are other reasons for Venstre’s slump. First, lets look at what binds the opposition together – value politics. This is obvious, because DF shouldn’t really be on the right. They are essentially a left wing party on all issues except immigration. But so strong is their desire to not water down Danish society with outsiders, that they would rather side with the fiscally responsible right wing who share their conservative patriotism.
This week the four parties on the right have made a joint promise to voters that they will clamp down on immigration following the election, both in terms of reducing the amount of money given to refugees and asylum seekers as well as making it harder for EU citizens to claim benefits. With DF expecting to rise from 12.3 percent to around 17 percent, the fellow right-wing parties know that this is an election winner.
But a major change is taking place. The Konservative are bleeding voters while LA is set to gain a few more percentage points and rise to around 8.5 percent. LA’s strong small-government-low-taxes message has seen them capture voters from Venstre, which seems to have spent more time on damage control than on policy. All three parties want to reduce the size of the public sector as well as cut unemployment benefits to shift more people into work.
I think it’s really interesting, however, that as the parties stand now, there really isn’t a mandate to start dismantling the public sector at all. Put together Venstre (20.4%), Konservative (3.5%) and LA (8.0%) and you have 31.9% of voters who support it. DF voters are generally pro welfare, but with DF in the right wing block, is that they vote to keep out foreigners, but in exchange they get a smaller welfare state. DF voters are aware of this, which explains the recent campaigns by the Social Democrats to appear tough on immigrants and asylum seekers.
Left wing voters were stung when they voted in Thorning-Schmidt. After forming a government with Radikale to her right and SF to her left, it was impossible to satisfy the competing demands. A number of deals, such as dropping a promised congestion charging zone in Copenhagen and introducing corporate tax cuts, alienated the left wing base and led to SF withdrawing from government. Voters have punished both SF and Radikale, which are polling at around 5.5%, a little more than half of what they earned in the last election.
So where have their voters gone? Politiko.dk has a fascinating interactive graph that shows how voters are moving from and to, though it is dated April and much has changed since then. Still, what I found most fascinating was that all the parties except Konservative are set to lost a significant number of voters to new party Alternativet that was launched this year by former Radikale culture minister Uffe Elbæk. His party is widely mocked by the right wing, who find proposals such as 100% organic farming and 30-hour work weeks to be completely loony. Still, more than 4% of voters are set to vote for them.
Elbæk isn’t the clown he’s portrayed to be. He’s an experienced businessman and has founded two organisations that have existed for well over 20 years each. And while his pro-environment, anti-growth policies are rather left wing, one of his central visions is to improve the entrepreneurial culture in Denmark. He’s not a tax-and spend-leftie, rather an anti-cynical pro-welfare dreamer. It’s easy to understand why the party – which forms most of their policies democratically through so-called ‘political laboratories’ – is appealing to voters who see neo liberalism as a failed philosophy.
The value politics that were raised by DF and which ushered in a decade of right wing rule in 2001, seem to be on the rise again. Fear of immigration is so pervasive that even Thorning-Schmidt has to make concessions to appear ‘tough on immigrants’ and prevent voters moving over to DF. An important question is whether DF, as Denmark’s third largest party, will actually join a right-wing government. Up until now they supported the right wing in exchange for concessions on immigration. If they don’t join a government they might be seen as not living up to their mandate. But it’s hard to see how with their pro-welfare stance can be integrated with Venstre’s plan for a smaller welfare state. I have had difficulty finding any answers on this.
Anyway, the development is especially interesting given that a new libertarian paradigm is forming on the right. Liberal Alliance’s market fundamentalism finds a willing audience especially among Venstre voters seeking a stronger pro-business line. This harder line might make it even harder for DF to find their place in a coalition.
Meanwhile, the left wing is in disarray. The Social Democrats hold their ground, but around a quarter of the national vote is split between the remaining four left wing parties. With a weaker Radikale, Thorning-Schmidt would be able to pursue a more left wing agenda. But after four years of where she pursued liberalism over socialism, a major change of course could rock her credibility.
That’s as far as I’m willing to speculate. And speculate I have done! Have I made a major error? Overlooked a major issue? Leave it in the comments. M