Friday, June 26, 2015

Electoral Systems of the World-France (Part 1 of 2)

France is one of the world's oldest democracies, and one of the first republics in Europe. It has used many different governmental systems over the years, from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy to republican parliamentarism to empire to presidentialism. Over this period of time, a wide variety of electoral systems have been used, all of which have had different impacts.

The early days

Direct elections with wide suffrage are a fairly new idea in the world. Most elections for national legislatures in the 18th and 19th centuries either had limited suffrage or were indirect. For the most part, France was no different.

The first legislative election in France took place in 1791, directly after the French Revolution. These elections were held under the monarchy, and as such did not offer extremely broad suffrage. Voters over the age of 25 who paid taxes were entitled to vote for electors; 100 voters for each elector. These electors would then vote for members of the unicameral National Assembly.

This election had three significant political groups. The Jacobins, the furthest-left group, won 136 seats, while the centrist Marais won 345 seats and the pro-monarchy Feuillants won 264 seats. An electoral system with a tax-paying requirement would disadvantage the Jacobins, whose voter base was weighted towards poor voters.

Of course, after this, the constitutional monarchy collapsed when the King was executed. In 1792, a new electoral law was introduced for the republic by the Constitutional Convention. Suffrage was extended to all people over the age of 21 who had not accepted poor relief. However, this law was never implemented, owing to the Constitutional Convention adopting all powers and making Robespierre dictator.

Robespierre fell in 1794, and a new constitution was implemented. This created government by the French Directory, which had a bicameral legislature. The Council of Five Hundred was the lower house, with 500 members, while the Council of Ancients was the upper house. The houses elected five Directors, who held executive power.

These legislatures were elected for three-year terms one-third at a time. Suffrage was limited to taxpayers who were 21, and elections were to become indirect once again.

The new parliaments also had a three-party system. The Marais was still there, as well as a royalist group split between moderate constitutional monarchists and ultra-monarchists. The third group was the Thermidorians, a centre-right republican group.

Only two elections were held under this new constitution before Napoleon Bonaparte's coup, and so it's kind of hard to outline any long-term trends. This is in addition to France's long tradition of lousy electoral record keeping.

Bonaparte's coup was confirmed by a referendum in 1800, where 99.94% of voters voted in favour of the heavily authoritarian constitution. While elections still took place, most power was vested in three consuls, of which Napoleon was one. The elections under this period were not recorded, as this republic only lasted only four years, until Napoleon declared France to be an Empire. Elections under the Empire were not recorded either.

Return to a Monarchy

In 1815, the monarchy was restored to France. A bicameral parliament was introduced. The upper house was called the Chamber of Peers, and it was appointed by the King for life terms. The Chamber of Deputies was the lower house, with 402 members. This monarchy is known as the 'Bourbon Monarchy'

Voting rights for the lower house were severely limited. Only people who paid more than 300 Francs in tax (quite a substantial sum) could vote, thus reducing voting rights to 0.3% of the population, while only those who paid 1000 Francs in tax could be elected, thus reducing the possible pool of candidates to 0.07% of the population. The electoral system used multi-member constituencies where voters could vote for exactly the number of members to be elected.

An electoral system such as this would be expected to favour pro-royalist and wealthy (the two groups tended to overlap) parties. And, to no one's surprise, the ultra-royalists won a big majority in the first legislature.

For the second election in 1816, a new electoral system was introduced. The citizens who paid the most tax were entitled to vote for 40% of members, while all voters (including those who had already voted) voted for the remaining 60%.

Now, it would be expected that such an electoral system would favour the parties of the wealthy, and this is indeed what happened. Conservative parties won 228 out of 258 seats, divided between 136 for the moderate right and 92 for the ultra-royalists, while only 30 leftist candidates were elected, divided between 20 for the republican/Bonapartist left and 10 for the liberal left.

In the 1820 election, this pattern continued. The conservatives won 384 out of 464 seats, while the liberal leftist group won the remaining 80 seats. Similar results happened in 1824, when 413 conservatives were elected compared to just 17 for the liberals.

The 1827 results were something different entirely. The liberals won an astonishing 180 seats, the same as the ultra-royalists. The moderate right won only 70 seats. While the combined right did win a majority, this legislature did not last long, and another election was held in 1830.

This election took place during the overthrow of the absolute monarchy and its replacement by the more liberal July Monarchy, and candidates favourable to the overthrow won 274 seats, to just 104 seats for the government.

The new monarchy made some changes to the electoral law; the tax requirement for voting was lowered to 200 francs, members of certain universities were permitted to vote without paying that amount of tax, and membership of the Chamber of Peers on family ties was banned, while the requirement for running for office was lowered to 500 francs.

While these reforms hardly turned France into a liberal democracy, they were certainly positive changes for democracy. The first elections under the new constitution were held in 1831, and these resulted in a win for the moderate liberals, who won 282 out of 459 seats. Supporters of the previous monarchy won 104 seats, while republicans won 73 seats.

As you can see, the broadening of the franchise advantaged liberals, but was not broad enough to allow more radical candidates to prosper.

The statistics from the next election, in 1834, are a bit harder to follow. A new conservative party seems to have been formed, which won 320 seats, to 75 for the opposition liberals, 50 for the seemingly liberal Third Party, and 15 for supporters of the previous monarchy.

The 1837 election saw a number of new parties form.

There was no majority for any party, and as such, another election was held two years later. At this election, the left formed themselves into a single group, which won 240 seats out of 459, while candidates in favour of the current monarchy won 199 seats, and candidates in favour of the previous monarchy won 20 seats.

The next election, held in 1842, saw further political consolidation. The conservatives organised themselves into a party, and the liberals and socialists organised themselves into another, thus creating a two-party system. The conservative party won 266 seats, to 193 for the liberal-socialist party. This continued in the next election, which turned out to be the final election of the French monarchy.

In 1848, a revolution took place in France to overthrow the monarchy, which, despite being more liberal than its predecessors, people had grown frustrated with. High unemployment and poor working conditions created discontent against the King, and, after riots in Paris, the King abdicated and fled to London.

A Democratic Republic

A provisional government was established, led by poet (only in France!) Alphonse de Lamartine, and universal suffrage was declared, thus increasing the voting population from 240,000 to 8.2 million, and a constitutional assembly was announced.

This assembly would have 880 members. It would be elected using a variation of multiple non-transferable vote. Voters would be able to vote for as many candidates as there were seats to be filled, but candidates had to win 2000 votes to be elected. If they did not, a runoff election would be held 14 days later.

The election to the Constitutional Assembly had the following results.

The result gave supporters of the liberal republican order a comfortable majority, and thus meant that a new constitution would not have much more difficulty in being passed.

This new constitution was adopted in November. It called for a National Assembly with 750 members, elected through universal suffrage. The electoral system used for the Constitutional Assembly was retained. Given that the new nation was to be a republic, it was decided that a President would have to be elected. This was to be done directly, but through a variation of the two-round system; if no candidate won a majority in the direct vote, the National Assembly would pick the winner.

The first presidential election took place later that year, in 1848. This resulted in a win for Napoleon the Third, who won 74.4% of the vote to 19.6% to Moderate Republican candidate Louis-Eugine Cavaignac and 5% for Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, the Socialist candidate. Napoleon was a populist, who was able to win through his opposition to radical republicanism, his vaguely left-wing economics, and his strong name recognition.

The next year, a legislative election took place. 

This assembly clashed with President Napoleon, and in 1850 the Conservative majority passed a law restricting suffrage, which Napoleon did not like. This was used as justification for a coup, which took place in December of 1851. This coup was followed by a referendum, where 92% voted in favour of giving Napoleon the authority to write a new constitution. By 1852, Napoleon was firmly in control of the French government, and like his father, he was determined to keep it that way.

The Second Empire

Napoleon decided to write a new constitution, modelled after the one his uncle introduced. The major part of the constitution was his own crowing as Emperor, with fairly broad powers. His strong result in the presidential election convinced him that universal suffrage would be to his advantage, and so it was re-introduced for the lower house. An upper house was introduced, comprised of members of the military and clergy, along with members appointed by the Emperor.

The electoral system used for the lower house was fairly simple. France's regions, called departments, were given a member of the lower house for every 35,000 voters (a voter was defined as a male citizen over the age of 21 who had lived in their district for six months or more. The departments were divided into a number of constituencies equal to the number of members of the lower house.

A majoritarian two-round system was used, with candidates required to win a majority of the votes in the first round as well as 25% of the total eligible electorate. If no candidate won a majority or 25% of the eligible electorate, another election would be held. Under the Napoleonic system, anyone eligible for election could stand in this second ballot, and the candidate with the most votes was elected. Voting was nominally secret, but apparently this was violated. The government strongly supported their candidates by gerrymandering, ballot stuffing, and voter intimidation, thus making these elections more of a charade than genuine democracy.

The first election under the new constitution took place in 1852. To absolutely nobody's surprise, pro-Napoleon candidates won 253 out of 261 seats, off 86.55% of the (officially reported) vote. Candidates opposing Napoleon's rule won 13.45% and 8 seats, 3 of which were won by Republicans and 5 by Monarchists.

The 1857 election had almost identical results.  Napoleon's popularity was still fairly strong, but the election was obviously heavily rigged against opposition candidates. Most republicans and monarchists refused to participate, but five republicans were elected, with 10.9% of the vote. Pro-Napoleon candidates won the remaining 89.1% and 276 seats.

However, the 1862 election saw a bit of change, for the first time. A slowing economy and growing opposition caused by liberalisations meant that the government, while not being seriously challenged, faced the threat of a serious opposition caucus.

The result was, once again, a comfortable majority for the pro-Napoleon candidates. Republicans won 32 seats, and monarchists won 15 seats: in total, opposition candidates won about 25.8% of the vote. The liberalisations encouraged more opposition voters to turn out, and turnout increased to 75% of the vote. Pro-Napoleon candidates won 251 seats and 74.2%; the beneficiaries of strong rural support and voter suppression.

The Second Empire was losing popularity under Napoleon's rule, and the 1869 election reflected this. The pro-Napoleon faction had divided into two groups; the liberals and the authoritarians. The liberal candidates won 120 seats, and the authoritarians won 98 seats: in total, pro-Napoleon candidates won 55% of the vote. Republicans won 30 seats, and monarchists won 41, and in total 45% of people voted for opposition candidates.

The empire did not last long after this. The French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War led to a revolution overthrowing the Second Empire. Napoleon fled the country, and a new republican government was formed.

A French Republic-third time lucky?

The new government was to be a republic, and this new government were interested in holding elections as soon as possible. As a result, they decided not to write a new electoral law, instead using the system used from 1849. 

"This assembly would have 880 members. It would be elected using a variation of multiple non-transferable vote. Voters would be able to vote for as many candidates as there were seats to be filled, but candidates had to win 2000 votes to be elected. If they did not, a runoff election would be held 14 days later."

The assembly would have some changes; only 768 members would be elected (in theory, but the Prussian occupation of the north of the country meant that only 675 members would be elected). The wartime situation meant that the campaign wasn't especially competitive, but it was clearly more liberal than elections under Napoleon.

The election resulted in a majority for pro-monarchist candidates, who were more in favour of peace with the German Empire than the more nationalist republicans.

Later in that year, a number of by-elections were held. These resulted in a win for republicans; radical republicans won 35, moderate republicans won 38, and Catholic republicans won 26 seats. Supporters of the Bourbons won 9 seats, and pro-Napoleon candidates and Orleanists won 3 seats each.

The 1849 electoral law was not to last long, and in 1873 the monarchist majority voted for the return to the majoritarian 1852 electoral system, introduced by Napoleon the Third.

A two-round system was used, with candidates required to win a majority of the votes in the first round. If no candidate won a majority, another election would be held. Under the Napoleonic system, anyone eligible for election could stand in this second ballot, and the candidate with the most votes was elected.

A republican constitution was eventually introduced in 1875. This constitution called for a bicameral parliament, with a lower house initially comprised of 533 members that would be directly elected by the Napoleonic system. An upper house, called the Senate, was introduced. This body would have 300 members. 75 of these would be elected by the parliament for life, while the remaining members would be elected by electoral colleges (groups of local politicians) for nine-year terms. One-third of members were elected every third years. The president would be elected by the National Assembly for a seven-year term.

The first election under this constitution took place in 1876, and the results were a majority for the republicans.
The result was a comfortable win for the Republicans, who ensured that France's new constitution would stay in place. However, the new parliament only lasted a year. President Patrice de MacMahon, a Royalist, demanded the resignation of Republican prime minister Julius Simon, and replaced him with a royalist. The National Assembly refused to support the new government, and so MacMahon dissolved the National Assembly.

The next election, in 1877, saw the Republicans form into a single party, in order to protest the decision of President McMahon.

As you can see, the election resulted in a win for the Republicans, and a decisive rejection for President MacMahon. He soon resigned, and the event reduced the likelihood of dissolution in France's political future.

Over the next few years, France's republicans were dominant. Socialist groups began to emerge, but they were generally weak. The graph below shows the balance of power between the major groups over this period.

An electoral system change did take place in 1885, when a block vote system was introduced. One member was appointed for every 70,000 votes, and seats were distributed by department. Voters would have as many votes as there were members to be elected. Candidates had to receive a vote from 50% of the voters to be elected. Candidates who did not win this progressed into the second round, where the candidates only needed to be the highest polling. This was repealed in 1889.

As you can see, the dominant faction was the moderate republicans up until 1898.

The game began to change in 1902, when the socialists allied with the left of the republicans to create the Left Block. The results of that election are below.

The Left Block won a narrow majority, but the government didn't last, and in the 1906 election, the old coalition of the centre and centre-left won a majority, winning 340 out of 585 seats. The left-wing won 74 seats, and 174 were won by the right.

This happened once again in 1910, when the centre-left and centre won 371 seats out of 595. The socialists won 75 seats, and 149 seats for the right.

The 1914 election saw an increase in support for the left, who won 126 seats to 349 to the centre and 75 for the right. This might be seen as support for the anti-war position of the left and a shift from the centrists to the left. No election took place during the First World War, and all major parties formed a wartime coalition that lasted until the 1919 election.

After the First World War, a number of changes took place in French governance. A proportional representation system was introduced. Constituencies were multi-member, and one member was appointed for every 75,000 citizens. Candidates could either stand for office as independents or as members of a list. Voters had as many votes as there were seats. They could vote for candidates of different parties.

Counting was done in three stages. In the first round, candidates who had won a majority of the vote were elected. In the second round, the Hare quota (votes divided by seats) was calculated, and the average votes per candidate was calculated for every list (the total number of votes for a list divided by the number of candidates). Parties were given seats based on how many times the electoral quota fitted into the average, and remaining seats were distributed based on the highest averages.

On these lists, candidates were required to win 150% of the list average to be elected on their own steam, and otherwise candidates were elected based on the list order. Individual candidates were required to win with 50%.

A runoff system, normally quite a rarity in party-list systems, was added on to this system. If turnout was below 50%, or if no list won the Hare quota, an election was held 14 days later where these restrictions did not apply.

The election results saw a win for centre to centre-right republicans.
The National Bloc, a coalition of the Republican Union, the Democratic Republicans, the Independent Radicals, and the Conservatives, won 53.4% of the votes and 68% of the seats. The election was highly fragmented, but this was nothing unusual in that time in France.

The next election, in 1924, was notable not just for the consolidation of the right into the Republican Union, but also the electoral d├ębut of the new French Communist Party.

The coalition of the Socialists and the Radical Republicans won 46.2% of the seats and 38% of the votes, and won government. However, due to controversies surrounding German reparations, the government fell, and a coalition government of the radicals and Republican Union was formed.

The next election took place in 1928, and the results were once again fairly divided..

The election resulted in 55% of the seats for the right and 42% for the non-communist left, a win for the right, although not a landslide, and certainly a result that showed the French parties as divided.

In 1932, another election saw a change of government, to the left this time. This election saw the left form into a second coalition, including the radicals and socialists, but not the communists, who were still a pariah party.

The election saw a majority for the left, and showed the instability and fragmentation of French politics at the time. Voters, especially those on the right, were divided between many factional parties, even though these parties soon coalesced into coalitions.

This began to reduce in the 1936 election, when the number of parties was reduced dramatically. For the first time ever, the Communist Party entered into a deal with the parties of the more respectable left.

Note: The somewhat odd looking results on the right group in this graph are due to vote totals being available for the two right-leaning parties, but seat totals only available for the alliance between them known as the 'National Front'. Yes, I know it's confusing.

The Third Republic did not last long after this election. Germany was rapidly rearming, and the weak French government was unable to mount an effective defence. In 1940, the German Army occupied France, and the Third Republic was over.

Despite its instabilty (the 1936-1940 parliament had seen fifteen Prime Ministers), the Third Republic had been remarkably stable, compared to the empire. It had also created a political consensus around republicanism, thus making any return to the monarchy after the Second World War impossible.

The government had also been fairly democratic, compared to previous governments. However, at the end of the republic, the voting public were heavily polarised between left and right. This would create problems in the future, but would also stick around.

In terms of electoral systems, the proportional representation system could hardly be blamed for the increase in the number of parties. This behaviour was already encouraged by the two-round system, which did not penalise large numbers of parties on each side of politics. This is because the two-round system allows factional parties within the left and right to contest the first round, and the highest polling parties of the left and right to contest the second round.

The parliamentary system was also a legacy of the Third Republic. The monarchy and empires, which had strong executives, created an association of presidentialism with dictatorship. The result of the 1848 presidential election also stoked concern amongst elites that, given the chance, the country would vote for a populist dictator.

In effect, the political system of France had been shaped by fairly old events. And, as you will see, this 'conventional wisdom' would be profoundly challenged by events following the Second World War.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Denmark election 2015-more fragmentation, more Eurosceptics

The Scandanavian nation of Denmark will be holding an election on the 18th of June to the unicameral Folketing (parliament). Denmark, like most of Europe, uses a proportional representation system based on party lists. The country, like most parts of Scandanavia, has traditionally had relatively stable government. However, recent events have created significant political instability, and has led to a more fragmented political system. This election is likely to lead to the further fragmentation of Denmark's political system.


Denmark is a constitutional monarchy, currently reigned over by Queen Magrethe the Second, and has been so since the middle of the 19th century. Under the first constitution, there was a bicameral parliament; the lower house would be elected directly, with votes for men over thirty who had not received poor relief. These tight restrictions meant that only a minority of the population could vote.

Over the first years of constitutional monarchy, Denmark had a fairly strong party system. There was a developing cleavage between rural and urban voters, with rural voters generally supporting rightist and conservative parties, and urban voters voting for leftist (at this point, in most of Europe, leftist meant liberal, as socialist ideas had not taken root).

A number of changes took place at the turn of the century. A Social Democratic Party was formed, and first entered the parliament in 1884, winning two seats out of 102. The Venstre (liberal) party split twice: once in 1892, where the Moderate Venstre Party was formed and became the largest party in parliament, and once in 1905, with more leftist members forming the Radikale Venstre (literally Radical Left, but usually translated as Social Liberal).

At this point, the Social Democrats were winning significant shares of the vote, but were not doing so well in the seat count. This was due to the over-representation of rural areas, which tended to vote against the socialists and for Venstre. For example, at the 1906 election, the Social Democrats won 25.4% of the vote, and 21% of the seats, while Venstre won 31.2% of the vote and 49% of the seats.

This changed significantly after the First World War. For the 1918 election, a sort-of mixed-member proportional representation system was used. There were two levels. In local areas, voters voted for local representatives. In rural areas, voters used single-member plurality, but in urban areas, local members were elected through the D'Hondt method of party-list proportional representation. This seems to have been deliberately designed to ensure that Venstre would still be over-represented; the party could still dominate in the local countryside seats, while the Social Democrats could not have a similar dominance in the cities.

At the national level, all votes were added up, and all parliamentary seats were distributed between parties. The number of compensatory seats for each party was determined by the difference between the national distribution of seats and the local seats. This election was also notable for the extension of voting rights to women.

This electoral system did not last. The usage of single-member plurality in rural areas meant that Venstre was still somewhat over-represented at the expense of the Social Democrats, and in 1920, a new electoral system was implemented.

The new system was similar. Voters voted for local representatives, but all local representatives were elected using party-list proportional representation with (fairly) open lists. All the votes cast in these local areas were tallied up, and all the seats in parliament were distributed according to these vote totals. The difference between this seat distribution and the local seats was considered compensatory, and was distributed back to the local districts. A more exhaustive explanation of the system is found here.

A Danish ballot paper from the 2001 election

This new system meant that Denmark had complete proportional representation, but with local representatives. This system meant that a wide range of parties could be represented in the Danish parliament; however, it also meant that it would be unlikely for single parties to win a majority.

Over the next few years, the Social Democrats gained support, and in 1924, they became the largest party in the Danish parliament, a position that they held until 2002. However, this did not mean that they dominated the prime ministership, as the Venstre and Conservative parties occasionally teamed up to form coalition governments, usually joined by the Social Liberals.

This four-party system lasted until 1945, but the Social Democrats did in fact hold the Prime Ministership for most of the 1920-1945 period. Indeed, the system even survived the German invasion of Denmark; at the 1943 election, the Danish National Socialist won only 2.1% of the vote.

The 1945 election introduced the far-left to this system; the Communist Party won 12.5% and 18 (out of 149) seats, pushing the Social Liberals into fifth place. While the Communists did not last, the election introduced a far-left presence to the parliament.

Through the next few decades, the Social Democrats won the most seats, and formed governments. Sometimes, these were minority governments, but sometimes the Social Democrats would enter into coalition with the Social Liberals and the eurosceptic Justice Party.

The first non-Social Democrat government since the war was formed in 1968. The Social Liberals decided to abandon the Social Democrats and form a coalition with the much bigger Venstre and Conservative parties, but with the Social Liberal leader as Prime Minister. This coalition did not last, and in 1971 was replaced by another Social Democratic minority government following an election result.

A more surprising election took place in 1973. In this election, radical anti-tax activist Mogens Glistrup formed the Progress Party, which won 15.9% and 28 (out of 179) seats. The Social Democrats won their lowest vote since 1920, with just 25.6% and 46 seats. Glistrup was too controversial to be Prime Minister, and so Venstre, which had won just 12.3% and 22 seats, formed a coalition government with the support of Progress, the Conservatives, the Social Liberals, and two small centrist parties.

This government also did not last, and in 1975 another election was called. The Social Democrats improved their vote to 30% and 53 seats, and formed a coalition with Venstre, which had made dramatic gains at that election as well.

Venstre was devastated by their decision to deal with the left, and their vote was halved in 1977; they won just 12% of the vote and 21 seats. The Social Democrats improved to 37% and 65 seats, and the Progress Party became the second largest party.

Over the next few years, the Social Democrats regained their dominance, winning 36-40% while the Conservatives, Progress, and Venstre parties jostled over the position of major right-wing party. Neither of them cracked 20%.

As Denmark entered the 1980s, however, the Social Democrats began to lose support. At the 1981 election, the Social Democrats polled only 32.9% and 59 seats; this could be considered a loss to the Socialist People's Party, which won 11.3% and 21 seats, a gain of 10. While Social Democrat Anker Jorgensen did try to form a government, this fell quickly, and Conservative leader Poul Schluter formed a coalition of Venstre, the Conservatives, and the small centrist Centre Democrats.

Schluter served as Prime Minster from 1982 to 1993, either in minority or in coalition with other right-wing parties. However, after a controversy where he misled Parliament regarding a refugee case, he resigned, and was replaced by Social Democrat Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, who led a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Social Liberals, and the Centre Democrats.

This government fell into minority status after the 1994 election, after the Social Democrats and Centre Democrats made significant losses to Venstre (which came second for the first time since 1979) but held on to power due to the inability for the centre-right to form a government.

In a fairly close election in 1998, the Social Democrat government was returned, with 36% of the vote and 63 seats. They continued their minority coalition with the Social Liberals.  The 1998 election was also notable for the electoral debut of the Danish People's Party, a right-wing anti-immigration Eurosceptic party, which won 7.6% and 13 seats, winning votes lost by the fast collapsing Progress Party. The Conservatives slid to just 9.1%, the worst result in their history.

The 2001 election was notable for a poor result for the Social Democrats. They won just 29.1% and 52 seats, their worst result since 1973. Venstre, under the leadership of the fairly liberal Anders Fogh Rasmussen, won 31.2% and 56 seats. The election also saw a strong result for the Danish People's Party, which won 12% and 22 seats. Venstre formed a minority coalition with the Conservative Party.

In 2005, Prime Minister Rasmussen called an early election. This result led to little change; only one party's seat total changed by more than five; the Social Liberals won 17 seats, a gain of nine and their best result since 1975.

Two years later, another election was called. In the parliament before this election, the Social Liberals had split, with one MP and one Member of the European Parliament leaving to form the more right-wing Liberal Alliance. This seems to have stemmed from irritation at the move to the left of the Social Liberals.

The result was, once again, fairly unspectacular. The election resulted in most parties winning similar shares to the last election. However, the Social Liberals saw their seat share cut in half, while the far-left Socialist People's Party won 23 seats, a doubling of their seat total from 2005.

A more interesting election took place in 2011. Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen resigned, and was replaced by Lars Lokke Rasmussen. The election followed the basic mould of the last few; the major parties stayed fairly solid, with only the small parties changing. The Social Liberals doubled their seat count, and the far-left Red-Green Alliance won 12 seats, up from 4 in the previous parliament. Venstre won 47 to 44 for the Social Democrats and 22 for the Danish People's Party. The big losers were the Conservatives, who fell to just 8 seats, down from 18.

In total, the left-wing parties won 92 seats (including the leftists from Greenland and the Faroe Islands) to 87 for the right-wing. This allowed Social Democrat leader Helle-Thorning Schmidt to become prime minister with a narrow majority. However, it left her heavily dependent on the far-left Red-Green Alliance (a group including the Danish communists).

This relationship has not been smooth, and the poor communication between the government and the Red-Greens has been tumultuous, with that party being in opposition and in support of the budget twice, but still supporting the government. The Socialist People's Party initially entered the cabinet, but withdrew

The coalitions

The left-wing coalition

The Social Democrats go into this election as the leading Danish governing party. The party has moved to the right over the years, and the niche to the left of the group has been filled by the Socialist People's Party and Red-Greens. 

At this election, it is unclear whether they will lose their position as the governing party. Opinion polls have shown them at a low ebb, with some polls in the last few years showing them below 20%. However, they have tightened up in recent weeks, and some polls suggest that they could make it back with 25% of the vote, a fairly similar figure to their result at the last election.

The Social Liberals are a more centrist member of the left-wing coalition. On social issues, this party is on the left, but it is more centrist on economic issues than the other coalition members. For this reason, they are more open to compromise, which has kept them in the government.

At this election, they look likely to do poorly. Over recent weeks, polls have given them 4-6%, compared to 9.5% at the last election. Some of this seems to come from voters backing the new Alternative party, a new party that contains some former Social Liberals. This will weaken their hand if a new left-wing coalition is formed.

Standing to the left of the Social Democrats is the Socialist People's Party. This party is currently out of the cabinet, but supportive of the government. They were formed to create a 'middle way' between the Social Democrats and the Communists (now the Red-Greens).

Polls have shown that the Socialist People's Party has been substantially weakened since 2011. From 9.2% in 2011, the party has fallen to 6-7%. Their votes seem to have flowed to the Red-Greens, who have improved their support significantly.

The furthest left party in Denmark is the Red-Green Alliance. This party was formed when a number of radical socialist and communist (including one party that is a member of the International Meeting of Communist Parties, a venerable group that includes the Workers' Party of Korea and the Communist Party of China) parties merged (I don't know where the green came from) in order to get the far-left over the 2% threshold. In 1994, the party entered parliament, with 3.1% and 6 seats. Over the next few years, the party won 5-4 seats, but in 2011, they won 6.7% and 12 seats.

Dissatisfied with the more centrist bent of the Social Democrats, they did not enter government, but they backed the government from outside the cabinet. This arms-length attitude seems to have boosted their support, and they are now polling at 7-9%. This would be enough to give them a major role in a future centre-left coalition.

A new entrant into the political field is The Alternative. This is a new left-wing political party, formed by former Social Liberal politicians. This new party is economically to the left of the Social Democrats and Social Liberals.

The party is polling at around 3%, which means that they will almost certainly pass the 2% threshold and enter parliament. They are almost certain to also back a centre-left government.

The centre-right

The traditional leading party of the centre-right is Venstre. This is a fairly traditional European right-liberal party, although, ironically, Venstre means 'left' in Danish. It is one of the most pro-market parties in Denmark, although it is generally in agreement with the 'Danish consensus' of high taxes and expensive social services.

Venstre was initially favoured to easily win this election. Having pushed the Conservatives out of the way and making themselves the major party of the moderate right, they were expected to lead the rightist coalition to victory. However, recent polls suggest that the centre-right coalition will only have a narrow lead, and Venstre will win only 20%. If the centre-right wins a majority, it is almost certain that Venstre will win the prime ministership.

The Danish People's Party is a Eurosceptic anti-immigration but pro-welfare state party. They have experienced significant growth ever since their formation, most likely due to the increasing unpopularity of the expansion of European powers, immigration and austerity cuts.

Over the last four years, this party has gained significant popularity: seemingly, at the expense of Venstre and the Conservatives: both parties have dropped over the past eight years. They are now polling at around 17-20%, and it seems possible that they could overtake Venstre to become the largest party on the centre-right. If this does happen, it doesn't mean that People's Party leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl will become Prime Minister; the other coalition members would block such a candidacy. However, they would hold significant influence over a right-wing coalition.

Parties like the Liberal Alliance are relatively rare in Scandinavian politics. It is a classical liberal party, which is in favour of economic and social liberalism. It is fairly pro-EU. The party was formed by Social Liberal MPs opposed to the party's drift towards the left-wing coalition. It is the most liberal party in the country.

Despite the oddity of a coalition between the anti-EU, anti-immigration, pro-welfare state People's Party and the pro-EU, pro-immigration, anti (or at least more anti than the rest of the Danish parties) welfare state Liberal Alliance, the Liberals will be in the centre-right coalition. This seems to be a case of the lesser of two evils for them. The party has grown slowly since their 2007 debut, winning 5 and then 9 seats and 5% in 2011. At this election, they look likely to win 7-9%, and become a more important part of a centre-right government.

Finally, the poor old Conservatives. This was traditionally the more right-wing alternative to Venstre, but the rise of the Danish People's Party seems to have hurt them badly. Their seat share was cut dramatically at the electoral debut of the People's Party. Their seat share was halved in 2011, and they are now the smallest party in the Danish parliament, with only eight seats.

At this election, they look likely to lose this status, although this is more due to the existence of a new, even smaller party (The Alternative). Their vote share seems likely to go down at this election, with 3-5%. They will get over the threshold, but it seems likely that they will be a very minor party in the right-wing coalition.

Where is Denmark heading?

Wednesday's election looks likely to be an interesting one. With the polls tightening up, it seems likely that either the left or right will win.

However, some things are clear. One is that more extreme parties will begin to make gains. The Danish People's Party, the Red-Green Alliance (whose gains have received far less international attention), and the Liberal Alliance (not exactly extreme, but certainly different in parts from the Danish political consensus).

The other major factor is that the Danish political system will become more fragmented. The major parties are becoming weaker, and at least one new party has been formed. The likelihood of electoral reform is fairly low, considering the significant power that the minor parties have over governance.

Indeed, Denmark seems to be entering something of a vicious cycle of pure proportional representation systems. Significant proportionality allows small parties to prosper and hold significant power, which means electoral reform will be blocked, which allows more small parties to hold power. Such cycles are important to keep in mind for countries considering electoral reform.