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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Editor reserves the right to delete any comments on grounds including, but not limited to, irrelevant, offensive and threatening.