Denmark: Strange new government, same old politics


First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

Denmark’s new centre-right “grand coalition” government is historic in its composition, and – in its brief existence – has already come down clearly on the side of the upper-class. It has used the insecurity generated by Russia’s war on Ukraine to push through tax cuts for the wealthy, attacks on pensions, and abolishing a national holiday, while failing to address the multiple crises facing Danish society.

An unusual negotiation for an unusual government

When Social Democratic Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen launched the election campaign, she announced her ambition to form a government across the centre of Danish politics. This wasn’t taken seriously by the left – a view exposed as a mistake soon after the election – but it was understandable. The right-wing parties built their campaign around claims the Social Democrats, and Frederiksen in particular, were untrustworthy for their handling of the COVID-crisis – not least for the closure of Denmark’s mink farms over concerns about a mutated virus.

Despite the election delivering a narrow majority of seats to the “red bloc” of parties, after six weeks of negotiation Mette Frederiksen presented a new government consisting of the Social Democrats, the centrist Moderates and the Liberals (Venstre). For the Moderates, led by former Liberal prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, this was a dream scenario, and the main purpose for which he had formed his new party. For the centre-right Liberals, however, entering such a coalition raised a lot of questions, breaking a promise made during the election campaign not to go into government with the Social Democrats. The already weakened party immediately took a further hit in the polls, and has so far failed to recover.

The time it took to form this new government – six weeks – is a record in Danish politics, but the governing coalition is equally unusual. The last time Denmark had a government reaching over the political centre was in 1978 – and only lasted a bit over a year before internal conflict lead to new election. The government also holds a majority in parliament – an exception in Denmark, which has a history of minority governments – freeing it of reliance on parties outside the government.Governments in Denmark have a tradition of respecting earlier political settlements, not altering them without a consensus from the original parties involved in the settlement or before a new election during which the existing settlement is clearly rejected. The new government insists it will largely keep this tradition, meaning that more parties will be involved in negotiations when it comes to, for example, reforms of the military, employment and education sector.

However, the government has chosen to interpret the tradition in a new way, refusing to recognise settlements that don’t have a majority in the current parliament (even if there isn’t a majority against them). This leads to the result, that reforms the Social Democrats agreed on with parties of the left in the previous government – such as increased support to poor families and funds for improving public transportation – now face rejection by a government led by the same Social Democrats.

The Abolition of a Holiday – the government against everyone

The new coalition emerged from the negotiating room with a 60 page document titled “Responsibility for Denmark” covering almost all policy areas, but from the outset it was a short paragraph about financing increased military expenditure by abolishing a national holiday that got the most attention, and may become the defining issue of the government’s term. The new government has made the abolition of the national holiday – Great Prayer Day, the fourth Friday after Easter – a priority. The move is deeply unpopular, - with some 70 percent opposed – and is widely seen as the main reason for the new government’s rapid drop in public support. The Social Democrats are hardest hit, with a 7 percent drop in the polls.

The government initially tried to link the abolition of a holiday with the need to strengthening Denmark’s military. In a time of crisis, it argued, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, everyone working one extra day a year was a small sacrifice to make. It even tried to make the support for the proposal a condition for upcoming defence negotiations, but eventually had to abandon the demand. In reality, the government’s justifications for abolishing Great Prayer Day have varied, ranging from financing rearmament, to investment in vocational education, to securing general welfare spending. None of these arguments seem particularly credible – especially at the same time as the government is promising tax cuts for the rich. Speculations that union resentment at the government’s plan to deprive workers of a holiday (and its associated benefits) would spill over into ongoing collective agreement negotiations between the unions and the employers in the private sector ultimately didn’t eventuate. Instead, unions have responded by organising broad demonstrations and gathering a record number of signatures – almost 500,000 – against the proposal, demanding a referendum on the issue.

According to the Danish constitution, only 60 mandates (out of the parliament’s 179) are required to demand a referendum. The clause has been used only once, however, opposition parties, while almost all united against the proposal, failed to agree on putting the proposal to a popular vote. While left-wing parties in the Red-Green Alliance and the Alternative demanded a referendum, the Green Left failed to lend its support, despite its vocal opposition to the government’s plans.

Inflation assistance - from the poor to the poor

Indeed, while the left opposition in Denmark works together on a lot of issues, the parties differ significantly in their strategy on how to approach parliamentary work. These differences were also on display in negotiations for a broad political agreement to secure support to those families hardest hit by the recent rise in inflation. With many people struggle to pay their bills and maintain their living standard, the rising cost of energy and food was a major theme throughout the election campaign. Once again, however, the new government clearly took the sides of business rather than standing with struggling citizens. Taxing corporate super profits, for example of energy companies, is being kept to a minimum and social assistance granted to the public is mostly limited to the elderly. Even here, it often is a case of too little, too late – many Danish families are struggling to pay their rent, energy bills and other basic needs. While families and employees some may receive a small economic support before the summer, those unemployed and without children, won’t get any help at all.

Both the Green Left and the Alternative signed up to this political measures, accepting that providing some assistance is better than none. The more radical left Red-Green Alliance has sharply criticized the inadequacy of the deal, pointing out how part of the funding was simply redirected from a previous subsidy to support the poorest families which the government had abolished on short notice.

Yet another commission into the healthcare system 

Between the pressures of the COVID-crisis and a government intervention that forced the end of an historic nurses’ strike for better pay without meeting any of the protesters’ demands, Denmark’s healthcare system is in increasing crisis. It faces a growing recruitment challenge, as low wages and poor working conditions lead more and more people into the private sector or to leave the field completely. At the same time, applications for nursing studies are falling, and the system faces the looming demographic challenge posed by an aging population. Little wonder, then, that healthcare was the top issue for voters during the election campaign. So far, however, the new government has failed to deliver any meaningful improvements. Its new emergency plan merely transfers patients and responsibilities to private hospitals – further fueling the privatisation of healthcare and deepening the sector’s problems in the long term.

In response to the crisis, the government recently announced a commission assigned with the task to review the structure of the healthcare system in Denmark – the third commission to assess the Danish health sector in as many years. The commission’s conclusions will likely overlap with the findings of a commission convened in order to evaluate the Danish system of wage structures whose outcome is due later this year, and the commission into the healthcare system’s robustness, which is due to report next year. Given the new commission is explicitly constrained from recommending either more public funding or staff, however, there are already doubts as to how much it will actually solve. Indeed, much attention has fallen on the Moderates’ wish to abolish the regional governments currently responsible for running Denmark’s hospitals.

Fighting academia instead of inequality

Another unpopular reform the government has proposed is an attack to the education system, cutting more than half of all Masters programs, reducing them from two years to just one. This reform has long been on the Social Democrats’ wish list, who in recent years have sought to manufacture a conflict between higher education and the interests of blue collar workers. The reform is presented as the first in a reform program that will also cover elementary school, vocational education and training, and education for jobs in the social welfare sector. The proposed reform is widely unpopular within academia and faces an almost united opposition by political parties from left to right, who have already presented a joint letter asking the government to reconsider its approach.

The government argues the changes are about ensuring quality education and presenting students with more options, but the connection between this argument and cutting almost a full year from half of all Master courses is not at all obvious. On the contrary, students, university staff and academic unions all warn that the proposal will degrade quality education and harm the employability of future students. What is more likely is that it is yet another reform to increase labour supply by getting students into the labour market earlier and save money for other educational reforms.

Everything is a crisis, except the climate

From forming a broad coalition government, to abolishing a public holiday and many more reforms on their way, everything this government has done has been explained by reference to a crisis: the war in Ukraine, energy and inflation crises, a healthcare system under pressure, and so on. These multiple crises are used in order to justify reforms increasing labour supply at the cost of welfare. The government’s recently launched national budget plan – which was delayed due to the long negotiations to form a government – has been described as extremely dull, and devoid of new initiatives that might point towards a political vision of the government. The argument, once again: preventive measures in times of crisis.

While providing a convenient backdrop for the government’s agenda, however, this crisis-mongering doesn’t quite add up. Inflation is causing many people to experience personal economic problems, but overall Denmark’s economy remains strong, unemployment rates low and states finances are healthier than expected. Yet among all the crises that the government hides behind to justify its anti-workers politics, one crisis makes itself felt by its absence: the climate crisis. The national budget plan - which covers other crises in great detail - mentions climate only once in a passing sentence, and contains no new investments for a green transition. While both the Social Democrats and their partners to the right have adopted the green agenda in words, political action is lacking.

In February, Denmark’s independent climate council issued a very critical statement, warning that the current government policies are deeply insufficient to meet Denmark’s ambitious climate goals – 50 percent emissions reductions by 2025, 70 percent by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050 – or even the Paris Agreement targets. Few were reassured by the government’s response, amounting to little more than void calls for optimism and the reliance on the emergence of future green technologies.  The climate minister’s response: “I feel completely confident – that because we want to do more – we will reach the goals. I can feel it in my heart, so you will have to take my word for it”.

What comes next?

The government’s majority is narrow, holding only the bare minimum of 90 mandates in a parliament of 179, and it cannot afford to lose a single one of those votes. Of all the government parties, the Moderates are faring best, having only dropped slightly in the polls and facing neither criticism for broken promises nor conflict with traditional supporters. However, it is a very new party, with a lot of unexperienced parliamentarians – some of them already hit by scandals – making its future unpredictable. On the other hand, the Liberal party is in bad shape – indeed it has been for years, and some prominent former members left in order to form their own parties. The Liberals are currently polling below ten percent and party leader Jakob Ellemann-Jensen is on sick leave for the second consecutive month. The party has already announced that it will not campaign to continue to govern with the Social Democrats after the next election, for fear of experiencing an electoral wipe out. The government is already planning cut-backs on pensions for worn-out workers, a move that will yet again bring the government into direct conflict with voters and the unions. It also presents another u-turn by the Social Democrats, whose recent success in winning better conditions for this group of workers was sold as a key achievement of the party’s previous term in government.

So far, the common ground between the three government parties seem to be the ambition to increase labour supply, using the “politics of necessity” argument to drive through unpopular reforms. The municipalities are already preparing for deep, unpopular cuts expected from the coming economic agreement between the national government and the municipalities – meaning further cuts to welfare. Given their insistence on pushing through such highly unpopular policies, the government parties all have a lot to lose in a quick election. Instead, they are relying on the short memory of the electorate, hoping that the most unpopular reforms will be far behind when the next election falls in three years. Despite its conflict with the opposition and drops in the polls, at least one of the government parties will probably be needed to form a majority after the next election.

Opposition parties on the right – especially the far-right - remain scattered, lacking a clear leader, and it is doubtful they will reconnect before an election. On the left, disunity in strategy weakens not only future prospects, but also the opposition to the anti-social agenda of the government.  The Red-Green Alliance has recently called for the Green Left and The Alternative to work closely together, forming a coherent left alternative to the Social Democrats, but the Green Left remains reluctant to abandon its strategic orientation towards the centre-left. Instead, it seems more dedicated to resuming its perennial collaboration with the Social Democrats.

Laura Kofod is based in Rønne (Bornholm) and holds a master in political science,. She is one of the initiators of the news site and a councillor for the Red-Green Alliance in Bornholm.