Can Europe Make It?

Is there an Alternative for Denmark?

The outcome of Denmark's general election on June 18 could depend heavily on the success of a radical new party called The Alternative.

Lasse Thomassen
5 June 2015

Uffe Elbæk on the streets in central Copenhagen, putting up elections posters. Demotix/Jacob Crawfurd. All rights reserved.Denmark is going to the polls on Thursday, June 18, and much may depend on the success of a new party called The Alternative (Alternativet).

The opinion polls suggest that the right wing will win, and that former Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, will return to his old job. However, the lead is narrowing, and the election is set to be very close. The current Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, has turned out to be the Social Democrats’ best asset, and she might just squeeze out a narrow majority as she did in 2011. She is leading a minority coalition of the Social Democrats and the centre-left liberal party Det Radikale Venstre.

Much will depend on the new party The Alternative crossing the 2% threshold. When The Alternative achieved the necessary signatures to run for parliament in February this year, the left and centre-left were not happy. At that point, it looked as if The Alternative would steal voters from the centre-left without making it into parliament. Since then things have changed, in particular since the beginning of the election campaign. The party has got more media attention, and they have risen in the polls and seem to be safely above the 2% threshold.

The Alternative is the equivalent of the Green Party in the UK: it wants to do politics differently, it does not want to identify as left or right (but we all know it’s left), it’s more radical than most socialists, and sustainable development is at the heart of its programme.

The party’s founder and leader is Uffe Elbæk. He has a varicoloured background. A social worker and journalist by education, he started the alternative business and design school The KaosPilots and was the director until 2006. After being elected to parliament in 2011 for Det Radikale Venstre, he became minister of culture. (Det Radikale Venstre literally means The Radical Left, but they are more like the Danish equivalent of the Liberal Democrats in the UK.) Elbæk resigned in 2012 amid allegations of problems with the accounts, although he was later cleared. The year after, he left Det Radikale Venstre and established The Alternative.

The Alternative is alternative. It is first of all alternative in its approach to doing politics. They are horizontalists, and they are inspired by new political movements such as the alter-globalisation movements, Occupy, the indignados and local community projects. As with those movements, the party relies heavily on new technologies and social media platforms. In this way they have got in touch with constituencies for whom this is a natural part of their everyday lives, and for whom ‘parties’ and ‘programmes’ are turn-offs. (Elbæk wrote a report on this together with the Director of Compass, Neal Lawson, appropriately titled ‘The Bridge: How the Politics of the Future Will Link the Vertical to the Horizontal’). Basically they want to do politics in a different way, and technological and social changes have made that possible in a way it wasn’t before.

The other way in which The Alternative are doing politics in a new way is through the emphasis on participation. The party programme was created through political ‘laboratories’, and they are relying heavily on crowd-sourcing of ideas. Again new technologies and social media provide the infrastructure.

In this attempt to put participation first – both within the party and in politics more broadly – there are similarities with what Podemos have tried in Spain. There are differences though, most of all because the discourse of The Alternative is not populist. The party does place itself in opposition to politics as usual, and they present themselves as different – as an alternative – but not in the antagonistic style of Podemos.

One of the party’s election posters expresses this well. Placed strategically below election posters for other parties, The Alternative’s smaller poster says: ‘…there is also The Alternative’. A meta-communicative message that stresses their difference in a humorous way. (The German Piratenpartei Deutschland – Pirate Party Germany – has used a similar poster.) 

They are also alternative – or radical – on the political content with proposals such as a 30 hour work week. The Alternative has many points in common with Det Radikale Venstre and the two left parties Socialist People’s Party and the Unity List. There was never a strong Green party in Denmark. For many years, that space was occupied by the left-wing Socialist People’s Party (Socialistisk Folkeparti) and to some extent also the Unity List (Enhedslisten – Denmark’s equivalent of Syriza). It is this space which The Alternative is trying to break into. The similarities with the Green Party in the UK are obvious.

Despite publicly shaking their heads, if not rolling their eyes, at The Alternative’s critique of the growth dogmas of neoliberalism, the current centre-left government needs The Alternative to succeed in order to be re-elected. It is a paradoxical situation: The Alternative present themselves as the alternative to the sort of politics pursued by the current government, yet they will support Thorning-Schmidt as Prime Minister.

Where will The Alternative go from here? Their future depends on breaking into parliament by crossing the 2% threshold in the election on Thursday, June 18. If they do not do so, it will be a long wait until the next elections – local elections in 2017 and EU and general elections in 2019. Without representation and the money and media exposure that follow from it, it is very difficult to sustain a political party. It’s electoral success, or death.

This highlights the dilemmas faced by political movements like The Alternative. They have to engage with the existing political system in order to succeed; and they have to become players within a political culture they want to change. They have to seek representation in a political system they want to be the alternative to. And they have to have a leader who can take part in television debates and be their public face, yet they also want to do politics in a less vertical and more horizontal way. There seems to be no alternative to finding a way to bridge the vertical and the horizontal; the challenge is to negotiate the way between verticality and horizontality in new ways in each circumstance.

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