Denmark to hold early elections as Social Democrats move right
First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung on October 17.
On November 1, Denmark will vote, seven months ahead of schedule. Polls show left and right blocs almost neck-and-neck, and the risk of an outright win for the right-wing remains real. However, with Social Democratic Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen seeking to hold onto power through an unlikely coalition across the middle, a rightwards shift seems inevitable.
The early election was called when the Social Liberals, one of three smaller parties propping up the Social Democrat minority government, threatened a no-confidence motion after damaging criticisms in a report on the government’s handling of a Covid-19 mutation on Danish mink farms in 2020.
Frederiksen, widely applauded for her handling of the Covid pandemic, faced accusations of arrogance and abuse of power over the government’s cull of all 17 million of the country’s farmed mink. The official investigation revealed no legal basis for the cull, and while the Prime Minister avoided sanction, it has damaged her popularity.
Denmark is dominated by bloc politics and coalition governments, and both major political blocs – red (left) and blue (right) – currently sit even in the polls, with a slight advantage to the red bloc. With no obvious winner, two new parties – one nominally centrist, the other on the right – may decide the outcome.
Unusually, Frederiksen has called on centrist and centre-right parties to join her in a broad coalition across the political middle ground, to find "joint solutions to the country's major challenges”. While the Social Liberals, the Socialist People’s Party and the Moderates agree, the leaders of the two traditional opposition parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, have rejected the idea.
The proposal is also opposed by parties on the far-right, and by the radical left Red-Green Alliance, another of the parties that has kept the government in power for the last three years. Indeed, Frederiksen’s proposed coalition is also deliberately designed to diminish left-wing influence on government, and to shift Danish politics further to the right.
A social democratic success?
For many, Denmark seems a social democratic success story – a standard bearer for progressive policies in a sea of neoliberalism – where high taxes guarantee socialised medicine, a strong welfare system, workers’ rights, and progressive environmental policies. The reality is much less inspiring.
Denmark’s welfare state has been undermined and eroded for years. The health system is in slow-moving crisis, worsened by the current government’s mismanagement of last year’s historic nurses strike and imposition of a highly unpopular collective agreement through legislation. The sector now faces a serious staffing shortage, with 45 percent of advertised nursing positions remaining vacant.
Likewise the social care sector, where more than 15,000 positions have gone unfilled in the past six months. Low wages, increasing workloads, and privatisation in the health sector have driven the crisis, and successive governments have ignored pleas for change. In desperation, Lolland municipal government has even begun hiring social care workers from Spain, Italy and Hungary.
Before the last election, Frederiksen styled herself the “children’s prime minister”, yet despite a period of strong economic growth, child poverty figures have dropped only slightly, leading children’s organisations to condemn government efforts as woefully insufficient. On climate, a pledge to cut Denmark’s emissions by 70 percent by 2030 was enshrined in law in 2019, but little has been done to make this a reality.
On some fronts, the government has delivered, often under pressure from its support parties. A limit on property speculation by multinational capital funds, for example, the recently passed a rent cap, and a pension reform enabling those aged 61 and over, with over 42 years in the workforce, to apply for early retirement. The age this becomes available will increase in coming years, however, alongside the general retirement age.
'Ghetto laws' and 'ethnic gangs'
Equally concerning is the Social Democrats’ record of xenophobic attacks on immigrants and “non-Danes”. In the last election, this appeared to be a strategy to win back voters who had switched to the far-right Danish People’s Party. Indeed, it seemed to work, with many of their supporters moving to the Social Democrats – although many also went to the more extreme New Right.
In government, however, the Social Democrats have continued to use the language of “parallel societies” and “ethnic gangs” of “immigrant youths” (many second or third generation migrants). Ten percent of Denmark’s population don’t hold Danish citizenship due to the onerous eligibility requirements, and have neither vote nor voice in national politics, making them an easy target.
Frederiksen’s government renamed – but kept – the racist “Ghetto law” that turned communities with large “non-western” populations into legal ghettoes, imposing evictions, double criminal punishments, over-policing, and compulsory day-care. Adding insult to injury, when the Ukraine war began, the parliament amended the “Ghetto law” to ensure Ukrainian refugees could move into the same social housing recently emptied of “non-westerners”.
Denmark also faces condemnation from the United Nations, refugee organisations – and even the European Commission – for seeking to deport Syrian refugees to Damascus, revoking the legal status of hundreds of refugees. Pursuing a goal of “zero asylum seekers”, the government now hopes to send all asylum seekers to a “processing centre” in Rwanda – a violation of the UN Refugee Convention and EU asylum rules.
Denmark’s splintering right…
While the Social Democrats have marched rightwards, the right-wing “blue bloc” has struggled and splintered. After a wave of infighting, support for the centre-right Liberals, at 13 per percent, is nearly half what it was at the last election, while a surge in support for the Conservatives made it seem briefly possible that the Conservatives would to lead the next blue bloc government.
Such a disastrous prospect – their proposed economic plan would cost an estimated 30 or 40 thousand public sector jobs alone – seems to have passed by. Conservative Leader Søren Pape Poulsen has suffered a series of racist missteps, personal scandals, and policy backflips that have damaged his credibility, and the party has slipped from a high of 16.7 percent in August to only 6 percent.
With Pape sidelined, Liberal leader Jakob Ellemann-Jensen is now frontrunner for the blue bloc. Promoting a predictably market-oriented platform, Ellemann wants to “overhaul the welfare society”, deepen the previous Liberal government’s damaging policies of privatising welfare and health care services, and deliver 8.7 billion Danish kroner in tax cuts.
The Liberals’ climate policy is built around the sell-off the international offshore wind energy component of the formerly state-owned energy company, Ørsted. Strongly connected to Denmark’s large farming interests, the Liberals also claim that Denmark’s agriculture sector is among the world’s most climate-friendly, thereby justifying their inaction on one of the Denmark’s largest sources of emissions.
The Liberals are no strangers to racism, having introduced many of the policies the Social Democrats have continued, and at a recent press conference, Ellemann continued the tradition. He agreed with both the far-right Danish People’s Party and the New Right that the elderly should have a right not to have home carers who wear headscarves. Not to be outdone, a New Right MP party later said the elderly should be able to opt out of LGBT and Jewish carers too.
… and far-right
Further right, the libertarian Liberal Alliance has hit 7 percent support, while the extreme New Right sit around 4 percent. The far-right Danish People’s Party – which won 21 percent in 2015 – is languishing near the 2 percent threshold, however. Wracked by scandal and infighting, it has lost voters to the Social Democrats, to the more racist New Right, and now to the Denmark Democrats, recently formed by disgraced former Liberal Immigration Minister Inger Støjberg.
Støjberg is synonymous attacks on migrants – in 2015 she celebrated her 50th law restricting immigration with a birthday cake, and introduced the notorious “jewellery law” that confiscated valuables from arriving migrants, drawing comparisons with Nazi Germany. She was finally expelled as an MP, and given a 60-day jail term, earlier this year after being convicted of lying to parliament about non-existent refugee child marriages while Minister.
After her short sentence, Støjberg formed the Denmark Democrats, taking inspiration from the influential far-right Sweden Democrats. The party immediately surged to nearly 10 percent support and poached several sitting Danish People’s Party MPs. And while Moderates leader Løkke has ruled out working with his former lieutenant entirely, the Denmark Democrats could yet deliver government to the blue bloc another way.
Despite Støjberg’s origins in the Liberals, her party’s right-populist stance – anti-immigration but supportive of some social spending – has much in common with the Danish People’s Party. It also echoes the Social Democrats’ strategy at the last election. This, alongside Støjberg’s personal popularity, is a threat to the Social Democrats, who fear some voters they poached in 2019 might return to the blue bloc.
A crowded “centre”
Despite having forced the election, Frederiksen remains the centrist Social Liberal’s preferred Prime Minister. Economically pro-market, yet traditionally part of the red bloc, the party has declared they won’t support a left government this time, preferring Frederiksen’s call for a broad coalition, and they will be hoping to be rewarded with a ministry. Their opposition to sending asylum seekers to Rwanda could cause difficulties, however.
The Social Liberals also face stiff new competition from the newly-founded Moderates of former Liberal prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen. Løkke also supports a broad coalition – unsurprisingly, as he was ousted as Liberal leader, and quit the party, after failing to convince it to enter a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats after the last election.
With the ostensibly “centrist” Moderates polling at 11percent and rising – and officially unaligned with either political bloc – Løkke is well placed to be this year’s kingmaker. Indeed, as the campaign has progressed, speculation is growing that Løkke could take the top job himself. He has denied he wants the role, but also admitted he will accept it if offered.
Despite rebranding as a politician of the centre, however, Løkke is firmly of the centre-right. As prime minister, he oversaw a violent dismantling of Denmark’s welfare state, and worked with the Danish People’s Party to secure the racist tightening of immigration rules with which Støjberg is more associated, His tax policy in this election would cause an accelerated transfer of wealth from the middle of society to its upper echelons, in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.
The Social Democrats’ rightward turn ought to be an opportunity for the left to mount a strategic challenge, and offer a progressive alternative. That challenge is unlikely to originate in the Socialist People’s Party, however (now also known as “Green Left”, in recognition of its role as Denmark’s main Green party). While the party’s support has surged to over 9 percent, it operates largely as a left prop for the Social Democrats.
The radical-left Red-Green Alliance, which is more critical towards the Social Democrats, considers a centre coalition to be a “catastrophic mistake” that would prevent action on climate, inequality and welfare. The party was reasonably successful at using its leverage with the current government to win progressive reforms, opposes the government’s Rwanda plan, and has been outspoken in its criticism of the government’s racist policies.
It also won a quarter of the vote at last year’s municipal elections in Copenhagen, beating the Social Democrats to first place for the first time ever. In September, the Red Green Alliance took charge of the city’s 2023 budget negotiations, leaving the Social Democrats and Socialist People’s Party out of the room while securing robust climate and welfare funding with support across the political spectrum.
With many parties all but silent on climate, the Red Green Alliance has actively sought to make this a climate election, its call for a radical halving in the country’s livestock creating both backlash and debate, and forcing other parties to respond. On the inflationary crisis, the left-wing party calls for a windfall tax of 15 percent on super-profits for the largest companies to fund tax relief for low-income earners, and for a temporary halving in the price of public transport.
However, the party’s support remains largely limited to urban centres, and young, well-educated voters. For some years, the party has also been engaged in a “modernisation” process, to break perceptions that it is a “fringe” party and to present a more professional, if still radical, left alternative. This process has not been without challenges, and some critical voices in the party blame the process for blunting the party’s radical edge.
Whether many supporters are disillusioned enough to give their votes to smaller parties on the left, such as the Free Greens and the Alternative, is a different story. The Red Green Alliance will be hoping that voters will be inspired by its radical policies on climate and social justice, and by its ability to get meaningful results like those it has achieved in Copenhagen. Current polling, however, gives it below 7 percent support – a slight drop from last election.
While a four-week election campaign is short for many countries, in Denmark it’s considered long, and unexpected twists and turns can still upset the entire apple cart. On October 13, for example, the surprise publication of a memoir by the country’s former defence chief, Lars Findsen – currently facing charges for leaking information – briefly threatened to derail the campaign.
Findsen was arrested in December after revelations that Danish spy agencies had spied on citizens and allowed US intelligence to use cables to spy on several European leaders. The book – written in secret by a journalist – claims his arrest was politically motivated, and that he was offered illegal plea deals. The book has sparked opposition calls for another commission into the government, but it has not had a great impact on the campaign itself.
Who will “count to 90” (the necessary number of mandates to form government) after the vote remains anyone’s guess. The ongoing rise of Løkke’s Moderates has surprised many, but if we are to believe the polls and the party leaders, neither a government of red, nor blue, blocs is possible, nor is a centre coalition. In the aftermath of the vote, we can expect some positions to soften as negotiations intensify, but how it will play out remains impossible to predict.