Election The Danish General Election, June 18 2015
The 2015 election will be held very close to the end of the parliamentary term and it will be the first time since 1903 that Denmark holds a general election in June. As is usual in Denmark, the election campaign will be very short and intensive. Three issues so far have dominated the campaign: Job creation, healthcare and immigration.
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 9, 2015
When Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister and chairman of the Social Democrats, announced on May 27 that a general election to the Folketing would be held on Thursday, June 18 2015, it marked the end of months of speculations among politicians and commentators about the timing of the election.
Under the Danish constitution, the prime minister is free to call an election at nearly every point during the four year parliamentary term, but as the incumbent government of Social Democrats and Social Liberals had been trailing the right-wing opposition in nearly every opinion poll conducted since the last general election in September 2011, commentators saw the prime minister’s options in choosing an election date as very limited.
The 2015 election will be held very close to the end of the parliamentary term and it will be the first time since 1903 that Denmark holds a general election in June. As is usual in Denmark, the election campaign will be very short and intensive.
Political developments during the 2011-2015 term
The 2011-2015 parliamentary term was marked by a number of firsts in Danish political history as well as a high degree of political instability by Danish standards. When the government took office in October 2011, Helle Thorning-Schmidt became the first Danish female prime minister, and it was also the first time that the Socialist People’s Party (SF) participated in a government. Despite lacking a majority of its own, the Social Democratic-Social Liberal-SF coalition could be seen as a Danish parallel to the Social Democratic-Socialist-Centre Party coalition which had held office in Norway since 2005.
The government soon faced major problems and conflicts. The Social Liberal Party had enjoyed a major victory at the 2011 and, holding the balance of power in the Folketing, forced the Social Democrats and SF to accept unpopular cuts to the unemployment insurance which had been agreed by the center-right parties, supported by the Social Liberals, in 2010 during the Liberal-Conservative coalition’s term in office. The Social Liberals also maintained that the new government should maintain the strict economic policies adopted by the previous government following the Financial Crisis. This led to frictions between the Social Liberals on the one hand and the Social Democrats and, in particular, SF on the other.
The government soon embarked on a major reform programme aimed at increasing the long-term supply of labor, despite Danish economy being in a recession or only experiencing very slow growth with relatively high levels of unemployment following the financial crisis. Most of the reforms, which included cuts to various cash benefits and the introduction of stricter controls for working-age benefit recipients as well as a major income tax reform, followed the guidelines set by a number of government white papers published during the 2001-2011 Liberal-Conservative coalitions. The three-party government also passed the reforms with the support of the Liberals and the Conservative People’s Party.
The reform strategy caused major internal conflicts in the junior coalition partner SF. One reason was that the party was not used to the demands of government office, another that the party had suffered losses to the Red-Green Alliance in the 2011 election and now faced serious electoral competition from the left.
Things first came to a head in the autumn of 2012 when SF party chairman Villy Søvndal announced his resignation. In a membership vote, the otherwise little-known MP Annette Vilhelmsen easily defeated the establishment candidate, Heath Minister Astrid Krag. Vilhelmsen was unable to control the internal conflicts and when the government in January 2014 decided to sell a part of the shares in the public energy company DONG Energy to the investment bank Goldman Sachs the parliamentary group rebelled against the government and the party leadership.
In the end, Vilhelmsen resigned as party chairman while SF left the government which was now reduced to a two-party coalition, and in a dramatic and unusual move in Danish politics a number of high-ranking SF MPs, including Astrid Krag, defected to join either the Social Democrats or the Social Liberals. The Social Liberals also suffered a split when MP and former Culture Minister Uffe Elbæk left the party, later to form his own political party, The Alternative.
While the government was struggling with maintaining its internal unity, the Liberal Party appeared to enjoy a smoother ride with polls showing a clear lead for the four right-wing parties and the Liberals receiving 30-35 % of the vote. During 2013 and 2014, Liberal leader Lars Løkke Rasmussen was hit by a number of scandals linked to excessive spending on travel, hotels and clothing. As a result, Løkke Rasmussen was forced to resign as chairman of the Korean-based international organization, Global Green Growth Institute, and in June 2014 came within an inch of being forced to step down as leader of the Liberal Party. The scandals affected Løkke Rasmussen’s personal popularity but also spilled over on the Liberals who have seen their support decline.
As in the 2011 election, two well-defined political blocs face each other in June but the internal balances of power have changed in both blocs. It is also worth noting that the clear lead the right-wing parties enjoyed in opinion polls during most of the past term has declined during the first week of the campaign with the result that the outcome of the election is completely open at the time of writing.
The left wing, “Red”, bloc consists of the five parties supporting Helle Thorning-Schmidt and the Social Democrats’ bid for a new term in office. Besides the Social Democrats and their coalition partner the centrist Social Liberals, led by Morten Østergaard who took over as political leader after Margrethe Vestager in 2014, the bloc also includes the moderate left-wing Socialist People’s Party, led by Pia Olsen Dyhr since early 2014, the extreme-left Red-Green Alliance and The Alternative whose position on a left-right scale is difficult to gauge.
Compared with the 2011 election, the biggest changes are that the Social Liberals and the Socialist People’s Party are set to lose votes, going from around 9 % to 5-6 % of the vote each. On the other hand, the Red-Green Alliance are expected to improve their record 2011 result, increasing from 6,5 to 8 %. In the run-up to the election the Social Democrats have managed a surprising comeback with the party set to win around 25 % of the vote. This is a marginal improvement of the party’s 2011 result but should also be seen in contrast to the Social Democrats’ performance during the past four years where the support occasionally dropped as low as 15 %. All in all, the numbers point to a shift in the balance of power in the left wing from the centrist Social Liberals towards the Social Democrats and the Red-Green Alliance.
The Alternative is the unknown factor on this side of the political spectrum. The party was considered irrelevant by most commentators until a few weeks ago when support began to pick up. Polls now see the party well clear of the electoral threshold with 3-4 % of the vote.
The right wing, “Blue”, bloc has seen even more dramatic shifts in the support of the individual parties. Most notably, the populist Danish People’s Party has seen a spectacular rise in its popularity among voters. When the party’s founder Pia Kjærsgaard announced that she would resign as party chairman in mid-2012, most commentators expected that her successor Kristian Thulesen Dahl would find it hard to sustain support for the party as he was seen as a more technocratic type of politician than the outgoing Ms. Kjærsgaard.
Instead, the party has been able to capitalize on the anti-immigration vote as well as the unpopularity of the reforms passed by the Thorning-Schmidt governments. Studies also find that many voters have moved from the Liberal Party to the Danish People’s Party since 2012 and polls estimate that the party will win around 18% of the vote in the election compared to 12 % in 2011.
On the other hand, the Liberal Party has been in decline since mid-2013 when its support in polls peaked at over 30 %. The scandals surrounding party leader Lars Løkke Rasmussen is one part of the explanation. Another explanation for the decline in support for the Liberals may lie in the difficulties in combining pledges of tax cuts with improvements in public services. Opinion polls now see the party at around 20 %, well below its 2011 result of 27 %.
This also means that the respective roles of the Liberal and Danish People’s Party may be less clearly defined than during the 2001-2011 terms when the Liberal Party was the dominant force on the right wing, with the Liberals now more openly dependent on the Danish People’s Party in matters such as tax and economic policy.
The other two parties in the right-wing bloc continue to play more peripheral roles. Both the Conservative People’s Party and the Liberal Alliance appeal to high-income earners with demands of cuts to income and property taxes. While the Liberal Alliance, led by Anders Samuelsen, has been successful in getting its message across, the crisis in the Conservative party which broke out during 2010, and which saw its support collapse from 10 to 5 % of the vote before the 2011 election, continues to affect the party. Party leader Lars Barfoed was ousted in mid-2014 following a disappointing European Parliament election but the party’s new leader Søren Pape Poulsen has not been able to reverse the trend.
Three issues so far have dominated the campaign: Job creation, healthcare and immigration. For matters of length, this section will concentrate mainly on the positions of the three largest parties, the Social Democrats, the Liberal Party and the Danish People’s Party.
The Social Democrats under prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt have made as much as possible of minor improvements in economic growth and employment during the last year, arguing that the tight economic policies and welfare reforms are now beginning to show their effect and that voters should give the government a renewed mandate to continue the policies of the 2011-2015 term. Here, the Liberals call for income tax cuts and the introduction of a benefits cap in order to increase work incentives. While rejecting the benefits cap, the Social Liberals have also supported income tax cuts both at the top and bottom end of the income scale. On the other hand, the Danish People’s Party support the benefits cap but are skeptical of tax cuts.
The Liberal Party has questioned the effects of the economic upturn on the labor market, arguing that due to the low level of work incentives, employers have had to rely on Eastern European labor to fill vacancies. The Social Democrats have rejected these claims arguing that Danish workers have benefitted from the improved labor market.
Health care has been a major issue in every Danish campaign since the late 1990s and 2015 is no exception. All three large parties call for improved services, especially in cancer treatment and care for the elderly, with the Social Democrats wanting to increase funding while the Liberals want to finance investments in healthcare by cutting expenses on development aid and immigration. The Danish People’s Party echoes the Liberals but reject the Liberal plan to impose a zero-growth policy for all public expenditures in the coming parliamentary term. This also points to some more fundamental disagreements between the Liberals and the Danish People’s Party on economic policy.
Finally, immigration and integration policies continue to play a central role as an issue of its own. The Danish People’s Party has repeated its earlier demands for Denmark to reintroduce systematic border controls. The Liberals and the Danish People’s Party have also called for reductions in the number of immigrants and asylum seekers allowed into Denmark. The Social Democrats have echoed the right wing in emphasizing tough asylum policies and the obligation of immigrants and political refugees to seek work. Here, only the smaller parties on the left wing call for an unchanged or more liberal immigration and refugee policy.
The Government Formation after the Election
In case of a left-wing victory, the most likely outcome is a continuation of two-party coalition of Social Democrats and Social Liberals, led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt. The Social Democrats will be more dominant internally than in the previous term, but given the fragmentation of the left, the government will still have to seek compromises with the Liberal Party on most major issues.
In the case of a right-wing victory, things are more complicated. The Liberals, led by Lars Løkke Rasmussen, are the obvious nucleus of a new government but it is unclear how the Liberals will organize their cooperation with the other three right-wing parties. A one-party government is a possibility but so are coalitions with the Danish People’s Party, the Conservative People’s Party or the Liberal Alliance in differing constellations. Neither of the four parties have given clear a indication of their strategy after the election.