Denmark’s election: a shifting landscape

Ann-Christina L Knudsen
19 November 2007

Denmark's voters gave a third term in office to their prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the election of 13 November 2007. As the centre-right premier of one of the best performing economies in Europe, the result may seem less than surprising. But Denmark is a more fluid and less predictable place than of old; elections have to be won amid a welter of competing arguments about where the country is going, and that can no longer be taken for granted. This makes its domestic politics more fractious and more interesting in ways that cannot always be read from the bare outlines of the result.

The core themes that emerged in the snap campaign (welfare, taxation, and conditions for asylum-seekers in Denmark) as well as those under the surface (growing social inequality, the government's support for the United States-led invasion of Iraq, the legacy of the cartoon affair of 2006) reflect a country whose government and people are in the midst of major social transitions.

The diversity of issues was reflected in the competition between new and old parties - the right-wing Danish People's Party (DPP), the Social Democrats (SD), the Socialist People's Party (SPP), and the New Alliance (NA) among them. In the event, the election reduced the centre-right's parliamentary majority, and Fogh Rasmussen will have to rely on the centre-left opposition parties for agreement on a number of policy areas.

The welfare dilemma

Denmark's political landscape features nine significant political parties , though only two leaders are genuine contenders for the premiership. Anders Fogh Rasmussen was the candidate of the "blue bloc": this consisted of the three centre-right parties who held a parliamentary majority since 2001 (that is, the governing Liberal-Conservative alliance and the DPP). Helle Thorning-Schmidt was the candidate of the "red bloc", which gathered four parties as well as her own SD. The joker in the election campaign became the newly founded NA, which - its position on the centre-right notwithstanding - had a long list of conditions for supporting a future Fogh Rasmussen government. In Danish politics, there is a delicate balance between the blue and the red blocs, and election outcomes and the shape of governing coalitions are not necessarily obvious before election night.

Ann-Christina L Knudsen is assistant professor in the department of European studies at Aarhus University, Denmark

All parties claimed they wanted to "do more for welfare". Once the trademark of the left, "welfare" has become a fuzzy discourse in Danish politics: it covers a range of questions from the generosity of public social policies, to the "flexicurity" labour-market model, and the disposable incomes of families. It is thus difficult to distinguish the real differences in the welfare messages of most of the political parties. Moreover, some sections of the traditional working class have gravitated towards the right, where the DPP especially has sought to capture the votes of low-earners as well as the less-educated.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen's own intellectual journey can be traced from the title of the book he published in 1993: From Social State to Minimal State: a Liberal Strategy. The public sector under his care has seen extensive changes in the last six years under the guise of new public management and efficiency criteria, increased monitoring and benchmarking, and a steady slimming of public budgets for social care and education (though today the premier claims to be a defender of "welfare").

Whether or not these changes have contributed, Danish citizens have become better off economically during Fogh Rasmussen's premiership (as indeed they did in the second half of the 1990s), and unemployment is among the lowest in Europe. During the election campaign, the blue bloc promised a continuation of their "tax stop" along with a "quality reform" of the public sector. The tax stop was an important element in the election strategy of the Conservatives, whose voters include small and medium-sized businesses. The DPP insisted that the "quality reform" is necessary, and that there should be further social justice in the taxation system.

For its part, the centre-left opposition campaigned for "more welfare", and insisted that the electorate would prefer to have public services extended even if its cost a little more in taxes. Both blocs were here bidding for voters in the "centre".

In the event, the centre-right had the better of the argument - or at least of the result, for the SD's electoral performance (including a reduction in two seats) was its worst for a century. It was a cruel setback for party leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt, whose unusual political career path saw her move from a seat in the European parliament (1999-2004) to win the SD chairmanship in April 2005 after her predecessor's post-election resignation. At that point, she faced criticism that she did not know enough of national politics, and even (despite long dedication to the party) that she was not a "real" social democrat. That she was the first woman to head the party (and related by marriage to the former leader of the Labour Party in Britain, Neil Kinnock) added to the discussion about her suitability for the leadership.

The ambitious, confident Thorning-Schmidt responded to the media attention by proclaiming: "I can beat Anders Fogh". It did not happen this time, but most commentators agreed that she performed well in the campaign. But she needs more time, and her party a clearer profile - especially on welfare.

The problem for the centre-left parties in the 2005 election is that they appeared to be competing against each other. This time, they agreed to stand firmly behind Thorning-Schmidt, and to avoid public bickering. This strategy had diverse effects for the three parties. Voters found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the SD and the Social-Liberals, and (after its strong showing in 2005) deserted the latter in large numbers. The Socialist People's Party, however, achieved the biggest advance of any party by winning twelve seats.

The SPP. by continuing to employ some of the traditional left-wing rhetoric about solidarity, looked more like the guardian of welfare than the other opposition parties. Now the party's challenge will be to translate this victory into political action in the new parliament.

A motley alliance

The Syrian-born Danish politician Naser Khader delivered perhaps the most unusual and high-profile contribution to the election campaign. In March 2007, Khader founded a new political party, the New Alliance (NA). This was the latest stage of a political career which had seen him enter the Danish parliament in February 2005 as a representative of the Social-Liberals.

Before then, Khader had been a prominent politician in the local politics of Copenhagen. As a non-practicing Muslim and one one of the first politicians of Muslim-immigrant background, he had become respected nationwide as the leading spokesperson for peaceful coexistence between people of Muslim faith and the particular "Grundtvigian" way of life in Denmark. The tattoo on his right arm - "democracy" (written in Arabic) - says it all. Khader gained further popularity during the cartoon controversy of 2005-06 as a commentator and mediator between the two most polarised sides inside the country; even the leader of the Danish People's Party, Pia Kjærsgaard, warmed to Khader at the time.

But Naser Khader moves quickly, and the attention he and the NA won in this campaign was owed neither to the cartoon-affair's legacy nor even to the content of the NA's policies. In fact, the party's programme was pretty unexciting even though it had been formed as a protest group, and it lacked a clear independent profile. The reason was partly that the NA was designed to accomodate the political convictions of its co-founders (Anders Samuelsen, also a former Social-Liberal) and Gitte Seeberg (an ex-Conservative). The party's main election message - to break "six years of blok politik" - was hardly different to that of the five other opposition parties.

Rather, the massive media attention focused on the new party reflected the fact that Khader, Samuelsen and Seeberg were established, skilled politicians in their 40s (and the latter two members of the European parliament since 2004). In addition, the celebrity candidates who ran under the NA's banner (from the highest echelons of Danish business, journalism, the "charity industry", as well as a few defectors from other parties) were a gift to the media. No wonder that at times the new arrivals had difficulty remembering the details of the party's programme.

The campaign trail

At the start of the campaign, many predicted that Khader & Co would be able to hold the balance of power - making Naser Khader the kingmaker, a position often held by the Social-Liberals in the past. This time the Social-Liberals were leaning clearly to Thorning-Schmidt, leaving the NA to orient itself (amidst much ambiguity, involving the positions of the DPP in particular) to Fogh Rasmussen.

Also in openDemocracy about Denmark, before and after the cartoon controversy: Ulf Hedetoft, "'Cultural transformation': how Denmark faces immigration" (30 October 2003)openDemocracy, "Muslims and Europe: a cartoon confrontation" (6 February 2006)Ulf Hedetoft, "Denmark's cartoon blowback" (1 March 2006)Grahame Thompson, "Talking democracy: China's lesson in Denmark" (30 November 2006)

Indeed, some of the toughest confrontations in the election campaign came between the NA and the DPP over the living-conditions of immigrants and asylum-seekers in Denmark and the rules governing their lives. Since 2001, the regulations surrounding family reunification have been tightened; notably regarding the controversial "24-year-rule" which restricts the immigration of spouses under that age. Moreover, recent reports have shown that the internment of asylum-seekers for long periods (even years) in Denmark, their confinement to asylum-centres and the refusal to allow them to work causes severe psychological problems and trauma among children.

The NA, together with the red-bloc parties, were strongly critical of this detention policy, and promised if elected to lift restrictions on immigrants and asylum-seekers. Naser Khader confronted Pia Kjærsgaard directly on many occasions, and lost his temper in important televised debates. But he chose the wrong battlefield, as the two were fighting for different sets of core voters; and in the process, he lost the respect both of many potential voters and of the press, which became tougher on him as the campaign progressed.

The campaign trail became steadily rougher for Khader. In May 2007, opinion polls had suggested that the NA would receive about 12% of the votes, leading to twenty-four seats in parliament (out of 179). Khader was hailed by commentators then as the leader of a veritable "people's movement" at the centre of Danish politics. As the campaign commenced, the NA's standing remained high; ; it stood to gain seventeen seats.

By election-day, the NA's popularity had dropped so much that it was not sure even to pass the minimum threshold of 2% (four seats) to qualify for parliament. The national newspaper Politiken (hitherto usually sympathetic towards him) characterised Khader as the most "unreliable party leader" in the country. When the votes were counted, the NA had gained five seats' and Naser Khader's kingmaking potential had diminished greatly.

The next horizon

Danish governments need to command ninety seats in parliament to command a majority. On 13 November 2007, the blue-bloc's seats were reduced from ninety-five to eighty-nine (a few hours after the election result was known on the mainland, an additional blue mandate emerged on the Faroe Islands, but this representative stated that he wishes to abstain in voting over domestic affairs that pertain to the territory of Denmark - that is, on most legislation). Thus, the government will be forced to govern without a secure majority, and seek broad agreements with the opposition. This places the government in a tight position in several policy areas. Above all, it will be difficult for Anders Fogh Rasmussen to accomodate both the NA and the DPP in agreements on asylum and immigration - which will have to be made soon.

Moreover, the contours have already been painted of a majority circumventing the governing Liberal-Conservative alliance over certain "welfare" and social policies; this comprises the DPP, the SD, the Social-Liberals, and the SPP, as well as the small left-wing Unity Party. Asylum and immigration, welfare and social policies are also at the heart of a slow Danish social and economic transition, and it is only right that a broad parliamentary majority is behind such decisions. If Naser Khader plays his cards right, he will still stand in the middle of it all. But Denmark is slowly moving, with or without him.

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