Europe and the 2015 Danish election

Carina Bischoff, Flemming Juul Christiansen and Mads Dagnis Jensen

On May 27th 2015, Danish Social Democratic prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt called for general elections to be held on June 18th 2015. The government’s four-year-term was due to expire in September. Ms Thorning-Schmidt held the strategic advantage of being able to control the date. When the Social Democrats launched their campaign in early spring 2015, this was viewed as an attempt to ‘prepare the soil’ for a later electoral harvest. The campaign had two main messages. First, it was claimed that the centre-left government had led Denmark out of the economic crisis and laid the ground for a healthy economic upswing already in progress. The second message was on the topic of immigration. Analyses had shown that the question of immigration was back at the top of the electoral agenda.

In this context, the Social Democrats’ ‘pre-election’ campaign made perfect sense. It aimed to strengthen confidence that it would be ‘tough on immigration’ and thus present a viable option for the large share of voters perceiving this as a critical issue. Moreover, it sought to justify its austerity policies that had cost support in its traditional electoral base. The Social Democrats had suffered from the widespread public perception that they had failed to cash in on many of their ‘leftist’ pre-election promises.

The campaign paid off in the polls and the Social Democrats could, therefore, begin the actual election campaign with a certain momentum. They tried to frame the election as a choice between the two candidates thereby playing on the fact that a majority of the electorate, according to the polls, preferred Ms Thorning-Schmidt as prime minister rather than Lars Løkke Rasmussen from the Liberals, who served as prime minister from 2009-2011. The Social Democrats hardly missed an opportunity in the following weeks to remind voters of stories of personal expenditures covered by the public (or party) purse that had tarnished Mr Løkke Rasmussen’s personal reputation.

By contrast, the Liberals tried to put the incentives of working compared to receiving social benefits at the top of the political agenda. The Social Democrats responded by questioning the correctness of the proposed calculations and thereby indirectly tapping into the trustworthiness of the opposition leader. While Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s approval ratings descended, his largest ally in the quest for government power, the Danish People’s Party, could boast of a leader whose ratings were soaring. In fact, Kristian Thulesen-Dahl was just a few percentage points behind Ms Thorning-Schmidt in the polls as the most popular party leader. The move to attack a weak opponent may have appeared to be a solid tactic in a race where two candidates for the post of prime minister were competing for power. However, in the post-election analyses, pundits suggested that voters reacted by turning to Ms Thulesen-Dahl rather than to Ms Thorning-Schmidt. The enemy of the Social Democrats was perhaps defeated, but the enemy’s ally picked up the losses, leaving the attacker no better off than before.

During the campaign, the Social Democrats and Liberals pursued a strategy of appealing to the median voter. To a large extent, they copied each others’ policies to the point where many complained that differences were hard to detect. In addition, both parties were wary of making promises that would prove difficult to keep should they manage to gain office. Only one key issue divided the two parties: the extent to which the public sector should be allowed to grow or not. The Social Democrats advocated moderate growth of 0.6% while the Liberals supported zero growth. One of the latter’s main allies, the Danish People’s Party, did not agree with the zero growth platform, however, and cracks in the centre-right coalition were, therefore, apparent on this issue.

Denmark has a working multi-party system, but is, as just described, defined by relatively disciplined competition for government by two opposing ‘blocs’ in the run-up to elections. All parties thus pointed to either Helle Thorning-Schmidt or Lars Løkke Rasmussen as their preferred candidate for prime minister. The ‘blue bloc’ consisted of 4 parties, plus one that failed to secure parliamentary representation, and the ‘red bloc’ was composed of 5 parties.

The ‘blue bloc’ has been led by the Liberal party since the 1990s.With a new leader in place who had no previous experience in national politics, the Conservatives ran a highly profiled advertisement voicing its intent to ‘stop’ everything from crime to bureaucracy and radical Islam. The Danish People’s Party had become a ‘normal’ party and thereby crossed the Rubicon from political ‘outcast’ to responsible alliance partner. Its economic policies make the ‘red bloc’ a more obvious choice of partner, although it found more resonance for its strict immigration policies on the political right. However, the ‘immigration issue’ was less emphasized by the party this time around and more emphasis given to welfare and its own economic plan. This, combined with its leader’s agreeable style, probably explains the wider appeal of the party at this election. The latest addition to the ‘blue bloc’ was the Liberal Alliance which originated in the run-up to the 2007 elections. After a name change, a series of setbacks, internal disagreements, and leader exits and entries, it managed to define itself successfully as a party with a strong liberal stance on economic as well as on value politics. During the campaign, they were the sole advocates of significant cut backs in the welfare state, while they were joined by the Conservative party in proposing tax cuts for the highest income brackets.

The ‘red bloc’ was led by the Social Democrats, and also included the Social Liberal Party, the Socialist People’s Party, the Red-Green Alliance and, as the latest addition in this election, ‘The Alternative’. The Social Liberal Party has been the traditional king-maker of Danish politics occupying a position in the political centre. The Socialist People’s party entered government in 2011 for the first time since its formation in 1959 and virtually crashed in the process. It left the government in mid-term amid internal strife over the sale of the state owned energy company to foreign investors. A vocal critic of several of these reforms since its exit it also advocated for green growth and increasing security for children, the elderly, and the unemployed. Somewhat surprisingly, it reached an agreement with the Danish People’s Party to undo the unpopular reform of the unemployment insurance system during the campaign. The Red-Green alliance on the far left thrived under the charismatic leadership of Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen and successfully picked up voters who were disappointed with the government’s lack of leftist-oriented economic policies and its increasingly hardline positions on immigration. The ‘new kid on the bloc’ for this election was ‘The Alternative’: a party founded by a former member and government minister for the Social Liberal Party. Without a clear programme, it set out to develop its policies in open dialogue workshops across the country. Most, if not all, political pundits did not anticipate its subsequent successful entry into parliament. It did not appear to be made of the ‘stuff’ successful parties are typically made of. However, during the campaign it managed to bring a series of left-leaning economic as well as green proposals and stood out with a very different style of debating.

As usual, the EU only played a minor role in political debates. The EU question does not follow the usual left-right lines of conflict that typically dominates national elections and it is generally of low salience to Danish voters. It did manage to slip through the cracks at this election, however. The ‘blue bloc’ thus took everybody by surprise when they put forward a common proposal to work towards limiting the rights of EU migrant workers to social benefits for their families. Moreover, they expressed support for UK prime minister David Cameron’s quest for renegotiating the terms of EU British membership.

As Table 1 shows, the clear winners of the election were to be found on the political ‘wings’ and in the centre of Danish politics. The Danish People’s Party, known for its anti-immigration positions and pro-welfare stance, became the second largest parliamentary party and the largest of the centre-right coalition – and, therefore, normally the natural leader of the governing coalition. Instead, however, the decimated Liberal Party, that suffered a major defeat, was asked to take up the mantle of power. The other winners were: the Liberal Alliance, ‘The Alternative’ and the Red-Green Alliance. Parties at opposite ends of the left-right divide with one thing in common: a clear vision for the future development of the country. The losers were the ‘older’ and more pragmatic parties.

Table 1: 2015 Danish parliamentary election results 2015
% votes Seats Seat change
Social Democrats 26.3 47 +3
Danish People’s Party 21.1 37 +15
Liberal Party 19.5 34 –13
Red–Green Alliance 7.8 14 +2
Liberal Alliance 7.5 13 +4
The Alternative 4.8 9 New
Danish Social Liberal Party 4.6 8 –9
Socialist People’s Party 4.2 7 –9
Conservative People’s Party 3.4 6 –2
Christian Democrats 0.8 0 0
Independents 0.1 0
Total 100 175 0
Registered voters/turnout 85.9

Source: Danmarks Statistik (20 June, 2015)

One election night, when Helle Thorning-Schmidt accepted the consequence of her narrow 90-89 defeat, and declared her intent to resign, the only thing known to the public was that a new government would be formed among the four winning parties in the ‘blue bloc’ and would include the Liberal Party. Negotiations to form a coalition government fell apart due to differences between the four parties, especially over the EU issue. Lars Løkke Rasmussen, therefore, formed a single-party Liberal minority government with only 34 seats out of 179 in parliament. There were 17 ministers in the new government and, at only 40 pages long, the government declaration was shorter and less detailed than for previous administrations.

The new government’s control of 19 per cent of the seats makes it the second-weakest in parliamentary history. Denmark is used to minority government but most of them have controlled at least 35 per cent of the seats, and in particular the Liberal-Conservative-government enjoyed permanent support from the Danish People’s Party. Since 1982 all governments have been coalitions.

Mr Løkke Rasmussen will need all his skills as a deal-maker. On EU matters and socio-cultural issues such as immigration policy and law and order, the Liberal Party could be said to hold the pivotal position in the new parliament. The European refugee crisis puts this to the test. However, when it comes to general economic policies and reforms on the classical left/right-scale zero growth places the Liberals to right of median in parliament and, for this reason issues, may emerge where the governments will be put under pressure. The Social Democrats, however, have ruled out agreements with the Danish People’s Party without the government. Every year, the government will have to find support for its state budget. It is too early to predict whether the government will be able to survive for long. The first months in office have shown that this government that it needs to manoeuvre and find majorities from case-to-case much more than any government since the 1980s.

Dr. Carina S. Bischoff is an assistant professor at Roskilde University. Her research interests lie in the field of comparative politics where she has worked on questions related to the parties and party systems, elections and voter behaviour.

Dr. Flemming Juul Christiansen is an associate professor at Roskilde University with particular interests in how parties work together in coalitions, not least in the Danish case. That includes coalition agreements, pre-electoral coalitions, parliamentary opposition and legislative agreements.

Dr. Mads Dagnis Jensen is an associate professor at Roskilde University. His research deals with institutions and policy processes in the EU, co-ordination within and between central governments, and political systems in Europe.