Episode 9: The Left win but remain deeply divided

Mette Frederiksen, leader of the Social Democrats, casts her vote. She now leads tricky government negotiations. Credit: Socialdemokratiet

Mette Frederiksen, leader of the Social Democrats, casts her vote. She now leads tricky government negotiations. Credit: Socialdemokratiet

Denmark has moved to the left. With a turnout of 84.6 percent, the left wing won a large majority in the Danish parliament on Wednesday’s general election. The next prime minister is likely to be Mette Frederiksen, leader of the Social Democrats, who, with the support of 91 MPs, holds a 2 seat majority.

Lars Løkke Rasmussen, leader of the Liberal Party (Venstre) only has the support of 75 MPs, and has stepped down as PM to allow Frederiksen to try and form a government. But the drama is only just beginning. Forming a government with her three allies on the left is going to be a challenge. And just because the right wing lost power, it doesn’t mean they don’t see the election as a victory, of sorts.

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I’ve absorbed all the news and analysis I can find after letting the dust settle. And I’ve whittled it down to four major headlines.

Headline 1 – If you can’t beat them, join them

The left wing lost power in 2015 largely because voters wanted tighter immigration and flocked to the Danish People’s Party (DPP). The party had their best ever result, securing 21.1 percent of the vote and becoming second largest party in parliament.

This gave the party a lot of leverage against the minority Venstre government, which used the past four years to pass 114 immigration restrictions. So the DPP, without ever going into government, got exactly what they wanted.

To regain power, the Social Democrats decided to adopt a new strategy. With a majority of Danes in favour of the tight immigration rules, the party decided to turn away from their humanitarian positions in the past. Instead they would vote in favour of almost every immigration restriction proposed by the right-wing government and DPP.

The idea was to win back voters who had abandoned them for the DPP. While most voters move between parties within the right or the left wing, DPP and Social Democrats are a major group of swing voters. If the Social Democrats could win back a fair number of them, it could swing the balance of power back to the left.

And it largely worked. Ten percent of DPP voters moved to the Social Democrats in this election, which was enough to swing the balance of power back to the left.

Headline 2 – The left is split on immigration and economic policy

Despite winning these voters, the Social Democrats only grew by one seat compared to 2015. This is because they also lost voters to their partners on the left wing.

These partners support Mette Frederiksen and give her the mandate to form a government. But there are some major areas of disagreement that will slow the formation of a government.

And these partners are now in a strong position. The Socialist People’s Party (SF) to the left, doubled their number of seats to 16, while to the right the Social Liberal Party (Radikale) also doubled their size to 14 seats. The far-left Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) won 13 seats, a loss of just one.

They are all in a position to make demands on Mette Frederiksen for their support.

First is to ease policies for immigrants and refugees. The primary demand is to rejoin the UN refugee resettlement program. Denmark participated in the programme from 1989 until 2017, in which they resettled 500 refugees from UN camps around the world.

The former right wing government pulled Denmark out of the programme with the support of the Social Democrats. The Social Democrats are also under pressure to improve conditions of families living in the deportation centre Sjælsmark.

The centre houses refugees whose applications have failed but who are unwilling, or unable, to return to their home country. Many of the 90 children in the centre were born in Denmark. But the conditions are deliberately grim, with parents unable to make their own food, or even own refrigerators.

Psychologists have warned that the children risk being permanently traumatised.

The problem for the Social Democrats is that easing immigration rules will give the DPP ammunition, who will argue that only the right wing can be trusted to maintain tight immigration policies. And given that 7% of Social Democrat voters are defectors from the DPP, they will be sensitive to accusations like these.

The Radikale also wants to ease immigration for economic reasons. Unemployment is incredibly low, and economic growth is threatened by a shrinking labour market. Foreign labour is the easiest solution, but strict rules make it difficult to hire foreigners.

Easing these rules, such as lowering the minimum salary a foreign worker must earn, will help. But again, easing these rules will put the Social Democrats under threat from the Right.

The Radikale is also a fiscally conservative party, that loves the books to be balanced. They are opposed to either raising taxes or public borrowing to pay for welfare investments.

Which brings them into conflict with their partners on the left. All parties on the left want to increase investment in education and increase staffing in public daycare. But SF and Enhedslisten want to find the money by increasing taxes.

Instead, the Radikale wants to find the money from reforms that would get more unemployed, immigrants and refugees into work. This is why they also oppose Mette Frederiksen’s promise to make it easier for worn out workers to retire early.

The plan is pretty vague, but the basic idea is that workers with 40 years in the labour market, should be allowed to retire before reaching the retirement age, which ranges from 65 to 72. But the Social Democrats haven’t specified how they will choose who is eligible. And the policy would also worsen the labour market shortage, and impact growth.

As of Sunday, negotiations were well underway, but without any major breakthroughs.

Headline 3 – The Danish People’s Party are decimated

Four years ago, The Danish People’s Party secured 21.1 percent of the vote. On Wednesday, they managed a mere 8.7 percent.

Ten percent moved across to the left wing to join the social democrats, while they lost around a quarter of their to Venstre, and 15% to new parties on the right, the New Conservatives and Hard Line.

Among the explanations that have been given, is that voters were disappointed that the party did not enter into a coalition government in 2015 after their massive victory.

Instead, leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl decided to continue their historic strategy of supporting right wing governments in exchange for concessions on immigration.

But now that both the Social Democrats and Venstre have embraced these policies, DF has essentially been neutralised.

And voters who don’t think DF is hard enough on immigrants can now choose the more extreme parties to the right instead. DF’s future is shaky.

Headline 4 – The right wing lost, but stand strengthened

Lars Løkke Rasmussen may have lost power, but Venstre still went ahead 3.9 percentage points to 23.4 percent. The Conservative Party also had a great election, increasing their share from 3.2 percent to 6.6 percent of the vote. So while they may have lost power, they’ve earned a confidence boost.

Some have argued that the success of the Conservatives is linked to their choice of ministers in the coalition government with Venstre and Liberal Alliance.

Conservative leader Søren Pape Poulsen took justice minister, while Rasmus Jarlov took industry and business and Maie Mercado children and social affairs. So: law and order, money and family – key areas for the Conservatives.

The same argument has been given for the decline of Liberal Alliance (LA). The coalition junior partner sank from 7.5 percent of the vote to just 2.3 percent – barely over the two percent threshold.

A libertarian party, their choice of ministries disappointed their voters – the foreign ministry, transport and housing, and the elderly. The appointment of Thyra Frank and elderly minister was especially unusual because she wasn’t even an MP, after losing her seat in 2015.

Some commentators point out that there was a hug opportunity for LA to position itself as the only true liberal party, after Venstre moved toward the middle during the campaign. They were unable to capitalise on the situation, however.

Perhaps it was because as foreign minister, party leader Anders Samuelsen had to spend long periods of time out of the country.

Samuelsen was one of the party’s nine MPs to lose his seat, leading him to step down. Of the four remaining MPs, it was the newly elected 27-year-old Alex Vanopslagh who has been chosen to lead the party.

Headline 5 – A record number of votes were lost

To earn a seat in parliament, parties need to win two percent of the vote. Of the four parties vying to enter parliament, only one succeeded, the New Conservatives (Nye Borgerlige). Votes for Hard Line (Stram Kurs), The Christian People’s Party and the Klaus Riskjær Party, were all lost – a total 154,000 votes. All parties were on the Right, which helped the Left increase their majority.

The Nye Borgerlige are anti-immigration and libertarian, a new combination. They’re expected to take on a protest party role in parliament, much like the DPP in the early years. 

Stram Kurs were close, winning 1.8 percent of the vote. Leader Rasmus Paludan has been convicted of racism and wants to deport all Muslims from Denmark. While he hasn’t earned a seat in parliament, to the relief of many not least in Denmark’s minority communities, the result has earned him party funding to the tune of 1.5 million kroner a year. It won’t be the last we have heard from him.

What’s next?

Negotiations could take a few weeks, and in the meantime, there will be plenty of politics to discuss. How will the Left align on immigration? How will they raise money for their policies? And will voters be prepared to pay to realise their green vision?

This coming weekend I head to the political festival Folkemødet where I will be speaking to as many politicians, commentators and ordinary people that I can.