How the Danish left succeeded to win the elections – and the challenges ahead

Denmark has seen two major elections in 2019: European and two weeks later parliamentary. In both cases, members moved away from populist parties

Adjunct Professor, Copenhagen Business School (CBS), Politician and Former Member of European Parliament

Denmark has seen two major elections in 2019: European and two weeks later parliamentary. In both cases, voters moved away from populist parties, chose the mainstream parties – and provided Progressives with election victories. Specifically, the parliamentary elections resulted in a move to the left, unseen since 1971. Voters clearly want their representatives to focus on welfare, after years of cuts on education and healthcare. Climate issues and migration also played a major role in the election campaign of the centre-left political parties. And these will also be the challenges for the new Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen.

The Social Democrats succeeded in regaining voters from the far-right Danish Peoples Party, but at the same time lost voters to the other parties in the red bloc, not least in Copenhagen and two others of the bigger cities. At the end, the Social Democrats did not make major wins in these elections, but mainly maintained the status quo of 25,9% of the votes (48 mandates) which is not very different from the last election where they got 26,3% (47 mandates). The combined votes of the 3 other parties of the bloc almost equal those of the Social Democrats. That’s how the red bloc ended having 91 MPs out of the total 175 seats.

In general, voters returned to the traditional mainstream parties and both the Liberals of the outgoing Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen and the Conservatives party improved their score from 2015. Already at the EU election, it become clear the pro-European parties made their best result ever – while the far-right Danish People’s Party (DPP) lost half of their support.

In 2015, the DPP had become the second biggest party in Denmark with 21,1% of the votes. For them to lose half of their seats now was the biggest loss for a political party in Denmark since World War II. The DPP has heavily influenced Denmark’s policy over the past two decades by constantly demanding restrictions on immigration and asylum.

But this does not hail the end of the anti-immigration extreme right in Denmark. Two new anti-immigration parties appeared in the election. A party called Nye Borgerlige (New Right), that accuses the DPP of not being tough enough on immigrants, received 5 mandates with 2,3% of the votes. They want to deport immigrants that cannot sustain themselves and stop giving asylum. The other extreme right party, Stram Kurs (Hard Line), wants an outright ‘ban on Islam’ and to deport most of foreigners from Denmark if they don’t have at least 3 Danish grandparents. With 1,8% of the votes, this party and failed to reach the 2%-threshold for a seat in the Danish Parliament. Despite the emergence of these new parties, all together the extreme right has lost 17 mandates in Denmark.

The day after the election, the Social Democrat leader Mette Frederiksen was appointed as Royal investigator by Queen Margrethe to start negotiations to form a new government. Frederiksen aimed for a minority government with the parliamentary backing of the three other parties of the ‘red bloc’. During the negotiations, the opposition as well as the media heavily questioned the possibility of an agreement. However, after 3 weeks of intense talks, Mette Frederiksen could present a paper of understanding, laying down the directions for a new government.

Result of the negotiations  

The 18 pages-agreement focuses heavily on climate change which was one of the most important issues during the election campaign. The agreement will make Denmark one of the world’s leading countries in the green transition with a reduction of CO2 by 70% compared to the 1990 target already in 2030. This will be done by national strategies in all energy spending areas from buildings to transport and industry.

A new Ministry of Housing has also been set up together with a housing strategy with the aim to fight the gentrification in the big cities, depopulation of remote areas and to reduce the proportion of family dwellings in the most vulnerable residential areas. Other measures are improvement in social policy, health care and welfare in general. Already during the election campaign Mette Frederiksen said that she wanted to be the ‘children’s Prime Minister’ and the agreement also put a high priority on fighting child poverty and improving childcare.

Two of the biggest issues for disagreement during the negotiations were on the one hand the immigration and refugee’s policy and on the other how to finance all the new initiatives.

During election campaign Mette Frederiksen had promised not to give up the strict policy on immigration but as she also said she wanted ‘a strict, but not a crazy immigration policy’. The other three parties of the ‘red bloc’ manged to impose some compromises in this field, without however altering the general course of the Social Democrats on migration. Integration will now play a central role in the immigration-policy. Still, refugees are expected to return to their home countries, once these are deemed safe. But if they have a job in Denmark for more than two years they will be entitled to stay.

New government

After the agreement was on the table, Mette Frederiksen presented a government with an average age of 41,8, young but not unexperienced as almost half of the new ministers already served under the previous Social Democratic government of Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Mette Frederiksen stressed when she presented the government, that is was based on strong ideologic values.

In spite of her young age, Frederiksen is a highly experienced politician. Born into a family of Social Democrats since four generations, she was elected to the Danish Parliament in 2001, aged 24. 

In her government, there are 20 ministers: 13 men and 7 women, reflecting the fact that the Social Democrats are the party with the fewest women in Parliament (only constitute 25% of the group). In almost all Danish parties there is a great resistance against gender quotas while geographic quotas are broadly accepted. 

Challenges ahead

One of the first initiatives of the new government was to allow the families in the centres for rejected asylum seekers to take their food from the canteen and into their room. An act that was heavily criticised by the Peoples’ Party as an example on how the Social Democrats will not keeping their promises on a strict immigration policy. The situation demonstrates many of the conflicts to come – probably every time a tiny human change is implemented in the field of migration.

For the Social Democrats however, it is a core policy.

Another big challenge for the Social Democrats will to find support for their campaign pledge of a new early retirement scheme for certain groups of the work force. This plan is not part of the ‘red bloc’ agreement, because the Social liberals were against it. For the Social Democrats however, it is a core policy. Among the plans to finance these new policies is the attempt to get more of the welfare recipients into the labour market, not least the many women of non-western origin. Another plan is to set up, in cooperation with the business community, Danish job centres in other EU countries to attract European labour immigrants.

The main challenge for Frederiksen’s projects, however, will be that the minority-government needs to find majorities from case to case.

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