Election Denmark before the election
The 2011 election will differ from the previous elections in two important ways: First, there is a real likelihood for a change in government with Social Democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt taking over as prime minister. Second, the campaign so far has been dominated by debates about the state of the economy while immigration and health care, the major themes of the three previous campaigns, have played only a minor role.
Published on balticworlds.com on september 7, 2011
When Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen called the general election for 15 September, it almost felt like a relief to many. Even if the campaign will be short, less than three weeks, the political parties and the media have been in campaign mode for all of 2011. In Denmark, the prime minister has the powers to call an election at almost any time and with the parliamentary term ending in November, almost every initiative made by Lars Løkke Rasmussen since January was interpreted as a possible excuse to call the election rather than on its political merits.
The 2011 election will differ from the previous elections in two important ways: First, there is a real likelihood for a change in government with Social Democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt taking over as prime minister. The left wing has been leading the government and its supporting parties in polls for most of the past year. Second, the campaign so far has been dominated by debates about the state of the economy while immigration and health care, the major themes of the three previous campaigns, have played only a minor role.
These two issues are linked: The coalition of Liberals (Venstre, V) and Conservatives (DetKonservativeFolkeparti, KF) has had to deal with the consequences of the international financial crisis, which hit Denmark in late 2008. The Danish banking sector took a serious hit, making several rounds of rescue packages for the financial sector necessary. At the same time, the Danish housing market suffered from a price bubble that had developed between 2004 and 2008. Finally, the real economy saw a substantial fall in GDP during 2009 leading to a rise in unemployment.
While the government passed stimulus packages to keep the economy afloat during 2009, it reversed its policies in 2010 in order to comply with the demands of the EMU regarding budget deficits and public debt. This makes it difficult for the government to deliver its earlier promises about increased health care and social services while voters at the same time worry about their jobs and personal economy.
Danish media present the election as a question about a red bloc facing a blue bloc. The reality is more complicated as there are important fault-lines within both sides of the political spectrum.
On the right wing, or ”blue”, side, the Liberals and the Conservatives have been able to govern since 2001 supported by the votes of the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF). While the three parties have been able to reach agreement on economic, social and immigration policies, their views on Europe differ with the DPP being markedly Eurosceptic and defending the Danish op-outs on the EMU, Foreign and Security Policy and Home Affairs. DF has been uneasy about the government’s plans to cut taxes and there have been frequent conflicts between the DPP and the Conservative Party over the past ten years. DF has also felt that the Liberal Party under Lars Løkke Rasmussen has been less enthusiastic about introducing tighter immigration and integration policies than under his predecessor, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Still, DF has few other options than to support a Liberal-Conservative coalition and during 2010 and 2011 it has grudgingly supported the government’s austerity policies. On the positive side, support for the party looks set to be stable at around 12-13 per cent of the vote, which is the same level the party achieved in the 2005 and 2007 elections.
The state of the Conservative Party, on the other hand, is a cause for concern for the right wing. In early 2010, the party suffered a massive loss of voter support in opinion polls. Whereas the party had managed to attract around 10 per cent of the vote in 2005 and 2007, it now found itself attracting only 5-6 per cent of the vote. While the new party chairman, Foreign MinisterLeneEspersen was blamed for a number of bad personal decisions, most notably going on a family holiday instead of attending an Arctic Council meeting, the reasons for the party’s problems lie deeper. The party has found it hard to attract competent leaders following a series of internal conflicts during the 1990s and it has also focused on business-friendly policies and tax cuts. Potential voters have been disappointed either by the party’s narrow focus or its failure to influence the government’s direction. A rebellion among MPs in January 2011 led to Ms.Espersen being replaced by the reliable but uncharismatic Justice Minister Lars Barfoed.
A small libertarian party, Liberal Alliance, has managed to capitalise on the Conservative Party’s weakness by pushing for tax cuts and deregulations. In the unlikely event of a victory for the right wing, Lars Løkke Rasmussen will have to bridge the libertarianism of LA and the pro-business stance of the Conservatives with the nationalist and pro-welfare policies of the Danish People’s Party.
Since taking over from Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2009, Lars Løkke Rasmussen has struggled with defining his own political platform. Initially ridiculed as “the understudy” who only followed the line laid out by Fogh Rasmussen, Løkke Rasmussen has gradually taken the Liberal Party back to its ideological core by focusing more on economic policy and drives to make the public sector more efficient. A number of outspoken liberal politicians like SørenPind and Peter Christensen who had found their careers blocked under Fogh Rasmussen’s leadership have also come to new prominence under Løkke Rasmussen. At the same time, the state of the economy is a major problem for Lars Løkke Rasmussen and the Liberals. On the one hand, the party wants to promote itself as economically competent, on the other hand voters blame the government for the slow growth and higher unemployment.
On the left side of the political spectrum, Social Democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt faces a similar challenge of bridging the interests of very different partners. Since 2007, Thorning-Schmidt and the Social Democratic leadership has put great effort into creating a close working relationship with the Socialist People’s Party (SocialistiskFolkeparti, SF) with the aim of forming the first S-SF government after the election. SF leader VillySøvndal has also led a determined effort to streamline his party and prepare it for government since taking over in 2005. The result was a big win for the party in 2007 and despite some cooling of the enthusiasm for SF’s new political line and a feeling that the party has lost its identity in the close alliance with the Social Democrats, the party has managed to hold on to its support among voters.
At the same time, Helle Thorning-Schmidt and the Social Democrats enjoy only conditional support from the Social Liberal Party (RadikaleVenstre, RV), which remains deeply suspicious of S and SF’s economic policies while at the same time calling for more liberal immigration policies. RV has put weight behind its criticism of S and SF by cooperating with the government on parts of the 2010 and 2011 austerity agreements, a move which would force a future S-SF government to implement the abolition of a popular early retirement benefit scheme that the two parties have otherwise promised to defend. The small Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten, EL) has exploited this by attracting voters who want to keep the early retirement benefit.
As the main opposition party, the Social Democrats are trying to balance the demands of voters and potential parliamentary partners. The party has done so by avoiding making too specific promises in economic and tax policy. The idea has been to make the party attractive to working-class voters who voted for DF and the Liberals in the 2001, 2005 and 2007 elections by pulling it closer to the political centre. The cost has been a lack of enthusiasm for the Social Democratic leader and while the party does stand to make modest gains at the elections, support for the Social Democrats is still at a historically low level with the party polling only 27-28 per cent.
Despite the vagueness of the Social Democratic programme, the most likely outcome is a majority for the left wing with Helle Thorning-Schmidt taking over as prime minister. While it is certain that SF will join S in a coalition, one major question is if the Social Liberals will prefer to join the coalition even if it will not win a majority of its own or if the party will stay outside and try to pressure S and SF into cooperating with one or more of the centre-right parties on economic policy.