Denmark gears up for the 18 June national election: a guest blogger’s primer on Danish parties, their alliances, and the hot topics under debate

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The next general election in Denmark has been announced and will take place on Thursday, 18th June 2015. So far 10 parties have thrown in their hat for the 179 seats in the Danish Parliament and it looks like it will be a close call between the “blue” and “red” blocs. Read on to learn more from guest blogger Anna Klitgaard about the different parties, their alliances, and the topics on which this election centers…

If you are from a country where general elections are a battle between a few large parties, the political landscape in Denmark must seem fragmented and confusing. As we are now in the middle of an election campaign, I’ll do my best to try and explain the numerous contenders, different blocs, and main topics. I start with the eligible parties in the 2015 general election:

Each party is represented by a letter as seen here on the election posters. This letter corresponds to the letter listed for each party on the ballot paper. (Photo: Anna Klitgaard)
Each party is represented by a letter as seen here on the election posters. This letter corresponds to the letter listed for each party on the ballot paper. (Photo: Anna Klitgaard)
  1. (A) Socialdemokratiet (Labour/The Social Democrats)
  2. (B) Det Radikale Venstre (The Radical Left/The Social-Liberal Party)
  3. (C) Det Konservative Folkeparti (The Conservatives)
  4. (F) Socialistisk Folkeparti or SF (The Socialist People’s Party)
  5. (I) Liberal Alliance (Liberal Alliance)
  6. (K) Kristendemokraterne (The Christian Democrats)
  7. (O) Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party)
  8. (V) Venstre, Danmarks Liberale Parti (Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party)
  9. (Ø) Enhedslisten, De Rød-Grønne (The Red-Green Alliance)
  10. (Å) Alternativet (The Alternative)

Eight parties currently hold seats in parliament, and they tend to align themselves with either the “blue” bloc or the “red” bloc.

political spectrum

Two ways of illustrating the current political landscape in Denmark. (Top: hfsamfundsfagc.blogspot.com / Bottom: historieogsamfundsfag.wikispaces.com)
Two ways of illustrating the current political landscape in Denmark. (Top: hfsamfundsfagc.blogspot.com / Bottom: historieogsamfundsfag.wikispaces.com)

What are the “red” and “blue” blocs?

The red bloc

Since 15th September 2011, Labour, The Radical Left and, until January 2014, The Socialist People’s Party have governed Denmark. The Socialist People’s Party left the coalition government a couple of months after a disastrous local election in November 2013, in which voters only handed the party 5,6% of the votes, and due to general internal party upheaval. Since then the party has supported the government on key issues. The Red-Green Alliance also supports the current government on most issues, but as this party is made up of a patchwork of former communist and left-wing parties and has a strong environmental profile, its support is less certain than that of The Socialist People’s Party.

A strong green profile is also how the newest political party to stand for election – The Alternative – hopes to win hearts and minds. They want 100% organic farming in Denmark before 2040, 100% renewable energy in Denmark, and all financial support given by the state to businesses to be channelled only to sustainable businesses. In addition, The Alternative wants to reduce the workweek to 30 hours over a 10 year period, but this may be too much for the other parties in the “red” bloc to sign up to. Still, The Alternative is likely to support a “red” bloc government after 18th June – should they gain any seats.

The blue bloc

On the other side of the political spectrum, the “blue” bloc was, until the last general election in 2011, made up by The Conservatives and Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party with the support of Danish People’s Party. The Conservatives and Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party have a long history of governing in Denmark, but the Danish People’s Party is only 20 years old and has never been in government. However, it has grown rapidly and is now the third largest party – after Labour and almost as big as Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party. Opposition to immigration and a strong scepticism of Islam/Islamism is its trademark, and the party and its leaders are some of the most divisive characters in Danish politics and the social debate.

For the first time in its history, the Danish People’s Party have indicated that the party is willing to enter into a coalition government after the next general election. For many years the party was seen as an undesirable coalition partner due to its hard-line stances on immigration and Islam, but with its growing support among Danes and its role as supporting party for the previous “blue” bloc government this view may change after the upcoming election. So far The Socialist People’s Party have agreed to work with the Danish People’s Party on issues relating to (un)employment, and the party itself have indicated interest in entering into a coalition with Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party.

Other contenders to go into coalition with the “blue” bloc after 18th June would be Liberal Alliance and The Christian Democrats – should they get enough votes. Currently The Christian Democrats are not represented in parliament, whereas Liberal Alliance is represented by nine MPs.

One final thought on “red” or “blue” bloc is that Danes will often refer to these two sides of the political spectrum as “til venstre for midten”/to the left of the middle (red) or “til højre for midten”/to the right of the middle (blue) – except when speaking of the party “Venstre”, Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party.

What do the “red” and “blue” blocs stand for?

As the “red” bloc bases itself mainly on socialism and social liberalism and the “blue” bloc on conservativism and liberalism, there are many differences between the two groupings. And although – as in other parts of the world – ideologies tend to give way to catch-all parties and populism, these differences are still detectable.

Amongst the “red” bloc parties, issues such as social and labour market security, environmental protection, and a humanitarian immigration policy are important. The Red-Green Alliance is the ‘purest’ red party in the “red” bloc and The Radical Left the least, but when it comes to humanitarian issues/level of development aid the two parties often agree. On the other hand Labour has become tougher on immigration over recent years, as they are trying to attract voters from the Danish People’s Party, whose welfare policies are rather similar to those of Labour.

Turning to the “blue” bloc parties, The Conservatives, Liberal Alliance and Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party hold similar views, as the three place high value on less bureaucracy, lower taxes, and less welfare. All parties are also trying to fight for businesses by campaigning for less focus on the environment and sustainability, lower duties, and a more flexible labour market – Liberal Alliance being the most extreme of the three on these issues. The “blue” bloc parties emphasise the right to citizens’ personal choices but also stress individual responsibility. Hence the “blue” bloc wants Danes to rely less on the welfare system, which should lead to a smaller public sector, lower taxes, and more individual freedom.

Ideologically the Danish People’s Party is often closer to the “red” bloc on issues relating to welfare, health, and animal welfare, but as they are hard-line opponents of opening the country up to immigrants and refugees, accepting ethnic minorities in Denmark (in particular Muslim), and a very sceptical view of globalisation, the party is often placed on the far right of the political spectrum.

The main election themes

For the general election on 18th June the main topics that have emerged so far are:

1) how to improve and secure the health care system
2) how to control immigration and treat immigrants and refugees
3) who should be eligible for unemployment benefit in the future

With regards to the health care system, both sides of the political spectrum agree that Denmark should have a world-class health system. Prior to the 2011 election, Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party and The Conservatives carried a motion that resulted in the plan to construct 18 so-called super hospitals across Denmark. [Blogger’s note: one of these will be in Aalborg Øst, near Aalborg University.] The current government is sticking to this plan, but many inhabitants in the rural areas fear the resulting loss of numerous jobs and having to travel vast distances (in Danish terms) to see a doctor.

In addition, there is talk of introducing a small co-payment (50-100 DKK) for seeing a general practitioner as well as fines for not turning up for hospital appointments and tests. The “red” bloc is generally against the introduction of a co-payment system, while the “blue” bloc is more open to the idea.

When it comes to immigration, it seems like a déjà vu of previous elections. For many years immigration has been one of the hottest and most divisive topics in Denmark, and unfortunately it is one that has shaped Danish politics, especially since the emergence of the Danish People’s Party in 1995. Most other major parties, like Labour, Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party, and The Conservatives, have, to some degree, imitated the Danish People’s Party with similar policies and statements about immigrants and immigration; hence only The Red-Green Alliance and, to some extent, The Radical Left and The Socialist People’s Party wish to pursue a more lenient immigration policy.

The last theme to emerge at the centre of the current election campaign is that of unemployment benefits or “dagpenge.” The hot questions are how long people should have to work in order to qualify for unemployment benefits and how long they should be entitled to claim benefits. Under the previous government the rules were tightened and many Danes lost their right to claim unemployment benefits, leaving them in dire financial straits in a time of financial crisis. The Red-Green Alliance, The Socialist Party, and the Danish People’s Party all seem willing to secure unemployment benefit for more people in the future, while Labour wish to await the findings of a commission looking at the issues. The Radical Left, Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party, and The Conservatives, who, along with the Danish People’s Party, were the architects behind the original reform in 2010, wish to uphold the status quo.

A very abridged history of Danish democracy, from 1870 to today

Going back to the 1870’s, two main groups or parties were established in Denmark. The Conservatives were called “Højre” or “Right” and Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party was “Venstre” or “Left.” These names referred to where each of the two parties sat in parliament. Today Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party is more often to the right on the political axis than The Conservatives.

For many years Labour, The Conservatives, and Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party were the only political parties. Each was associated with a distinct social class: Labour to labourers, The Conservatives to the economic and political elite, and Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party to farmers. Labour later became heavily involved with the unions and Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party with the cooperative movement, and hence both parties helped shape Danish society for years to come.

Around 1900 a splinter group from Left, Denmark’s Liberal Party formed The Radical Left, which associated itself with smaller business owners and tradesmen. Through the tumultuous 1930’s, when crisis and political extremism gripped Europe, those two parties, along with Labour, initiated an economic-political compromise (Kanslergadeforliget, 1933) that helped Denmark avoid political upheaval and extremism on a large scale.

During World War II and the decade following its end, the Danish political landscape hardly changed. However, in 1959 The Socialist People’s Party was established, and in the 1973 a pivotal election took place: 44% of the voters changed their voting habits, which meant that 33% of sitting MPs were not re-elected. Five smaller parties took seats in parliament, three of which were new on the political scene. One of these was the predecessor of the Danish People’s Party. Called “The Party of the Future” (Fremskridtspartiet), it became the second biggest party overnight.

Since 1973, the smaller parties have often won more power than their limited mandates should allow them to hold, as they have become important coalition partners for both sides of parliament. Therefore, it is always worth looking out for the new and smaller parties on election night and the days after as they can turn out to be the deciding factor – not least on the 18th of June, when the race for power once again seems very close between the red and blue bloc.

What is Constitution Day / Grundlovsdag?

Every 5th June Danes celebrate Constitution Day or “Grundlovsdag” and across the country politicians attend public meetings – often in parks. This year, the meetings will primarily be used to get their election messages across, rather than to spread a more general message about democracy.

Helle Thorning
The Danish prime minister Helle Thorning Schmidt at a Constitution Day meeting. (Source: b.dk)

It was the Danish King Frederik 7th who, on 5th June 1849, signed the first Danish constitution. Prior to this Denmark had been an absolute monarchy, but by signing the document the king allowed for a democratisation process to begin and the establishment of a parliament with two houses. From the outset only men over 30 years of age – who had no criminal record, who could support themselves financially, and who were seen to be sane – could vote, leaving nearly 85% of the Danish population out of the process. Not until 1915 did women gain the right to vote.

On election day – a few facts:

  • 175 MPs must be elected in Denmark on the 18th. In addition two will be elected in Greenland and two in the Faroe Islands. Most likely, three of the four from Greenland and the Faroe Islands will support the “red” bloc.
  • A government can sit a maximum of four years. The last general election in Denmark was on the 15th September 2011.
  • Denmark has proportional representation. Every vote counts and only if an eligible party gets less than two percent of the votes (equal to four mandates) do votes get discarded.
  • In the last general election almost 88% of eligible voters cast their vote. Every Danish citizen over the age of 18 can vote unless he or she has been declared incapable of managing their affairs due to metal or psychological illness.

WARNING! TV2 and DR run election coverage all night and into the early hours of the morning, showing a lot of flashy graphics and weird statistics. So don’t be surprised if you don’t find election night thrilling.

Half Moon Island, South Shetland Islands 025About the author:
My name is Anna Klitgaard and I’m a 42 year old journalist (you can see some of my current work here). I have worked for a number of years as a freelancer and world traveller, 10 years of which I was based in London. Sarah Holsen asked me to try and make sense of the Danish political scene, but I have to confess that I am not a political analyst or expert. However, I am interested in current affairs, I have lived in Denmark for roughly 30 years, and I love elections as a celebration of democracy. So while I’m not an expert, I can claim a strong background for writing this (relatively) quick guide to the general election on 18th June – the 69th general election in Denmark’s history (source: ft.fk).

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2 thoughts on “Denmark gears up for the 18 June national election: a guest blogger’s primer on Danish parties, their alliances, and the hot topics under debate

    John Hersey said:
    June 13, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    Excellent article, nicely presented and appreciate the history of Danish politics as well.
    I have newly discovered Danish ancestry roots, so this is extremely helpful in expanding my understanding more about how “my cousins” tick.

      sarahinjylland responded:
      June 13, 2015 at 3:51 pm

      I’m glad you liked it, John. The election is now only 5 days away. We’re eager to see what happens!

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