Copenhagen is the largest town in Denmark. Its city council also easily qualifies as the weirdest among the 98 councils left by the local government reform.
In the Beginning…
Just to recapitulate: At the elections on November 15, the Social Democrats won a convincing victory under ex-minister, ex-European Commissioner and ex-party whip Ritt Bjerregaard. Bjerregaard had been chosen especially for the task of keeping the office of First Mayor on Social Democratic hands in a situation where a succession of apparatchiks had led the party into electoral decline and the local party was unable to recruit a leading candidate.
Not all local Social Democrats were happy with the choice: Bjerregaard was an outsider to Copenhagen politics and several would-be mayors saw her as a threat to their own political careers. Environment Mayor Winnie Berndtson – who had held hopes of leading the Social Democrats – effectively got the boot this summer.
We Have a Deal – or Maybe Two
Bjerregaard’s victory was not enough to secure the office but the Social Democrats and the Social Liberal Party in coalition would command the slimmest of majorities. This was the result of negotiations on election night.
At this point things started to get messy: Leading Social Democrats reconsidered their position and decided that it would be a good idea to bring some extra parties on board, just in case that someone should get the bad idea of defecting in the last moment. Enter the Socialist People’s Party and the Unity List and then the centre-left command five out of seven mayoral portfolios, while the Liberals – whose local leader Søren Pind quit on election night – the Danish Peoples’ Party – led by the unlucky Louise Frevert – and the Conservatives would share two portfolios among them.
Then came the defection. However, it was not a Social Democrat or a Social Liberal who changed horses in mid-stream. Wallait Khan left the Liberal Party to become an independent. Khan promised to support the centre-left coalition and that would give the coalition not five, but six out of the seven portfolios. Khan in return would get the office as second deputy chairman of the City Council which is not an executive office but still relatively well paid.
The Liberals were less than happy with the new situation, but it turned out that the Socialists positively loathed the idea of welcoming Khan – he had left the Socialist People’s Party for the Liberal Party back in 2000 – and his inclusion in the majority coalition also caused an angry reaction from a Social Democrat councillor, Sikandar Malik Siddique, who like Khan is of Pakistani descent. (Or rather: An angry reaction from Siddique Sr., the father of the Social Democrat councillor).
Things Get Really Messy
Khan was an obvious target for political attacks. His motive for leaving the Liberal camp was not particularly convincing and the conservative weekly Weekend-Avisen started publishing articles depicting Khan as a person with a somewhat dubious background.
Khan’s and Siddique’s Pakistani background also became the focus of media reports. Danes are generally uneasy about immigrants and the suspicion was raised that Khan literally had been speaking with two tongues – supporting the Liberal stance on immigration and integration while at the same time supporting Islamist organisations Hisb-ut-Tahrir and Minhaj-ul-Quran (for coverage by Danmarks Radio see this link) – and acting as an Islamist fifth column agent within the Danish political system. The Social Liberal Party was by now deeply suspicious of Khan.
Khan got more bad publicity when it emerged that he had tried – in vain – to get elected to a local political office in Pakistan. In the end Khan had to withdraw his candidacy as the second deputy chairman of the council – that office would now go to a Social Democrat – but he stayed in the coalition.
Things Get Really, Really Messy
But it was not over yet. On December 2, veteran Social Democratic councillor Finn Rudaizky left his party to become an independent member of the council. Rudaizky criticised his former party for accepting Sikandar Siddique’s alleged contacts with Hisb-ut-Tahrir, but also said that he would not tilt the balance between the blocs in the City Council.
Ritt Bjerregaard answered by saying that Rudaizky had only earned his council mandate through the party’s list vote and urged him to resign from the City Council.
…but We Hadn’t Seen the Worst Yet
On Sunday, acting Environment Mayor Winnie Berndtson announced that she would not only be leaving the Social Democratic group but also support the three right-wing parties in the election of mayors. That move will probably mean that a Liberal councillor rather than Social Democrat Thor Grønlykke will become Social Affairs Mayor.
Since being dumped by her (see above), Berndtson has been an intimate enemy of Bjerregaard and has voiced harsh criticism of Bjerregaard’s personnel policy on several occasions, but Berndtson’s defection is nevertheless an amazing climax to an already surprising political battle.
What Was That All About Then?
First of all: It’s not all over yet. This tale may still hold one or the other twist that will turn it into complete farce or madness, depending on your point of view, and any conclusions are bound to be partial or premature or both.
What is certain is that it is very hard to see anything even remotely related to policy in all of these manœuverings. Perhaps the Socialists and Social Liberals came closest when they demanded a statement from Khan where he renounced any Islamist movements working among the immigrant communities. Khan obliged but also realised that he was not acceptable as a candidate for any council office.
In the Khan/Siddique-affair, Danish media have concentrated on clan politics within the Pakistani community. Clan based politics obviously clashes with the Scandinavian style of politics which since the early 20th century has been firmly based on ideological and social conflicts. Ethnically based politics may be legitimate to Danes and other Scandinavians but clan based politics definitively is something deeply alien – and Siddique Sr.’s actions on behalf of his son is probably the closest you get to a kiss-of-death in Danish politics even though Danes have a fair number of political families.
Another aspect which further erodes Khan’s and Siddique’s political legitimacy is the allegations about covert support of Islamist movements. There are two aspects to consider here:
- First, in the present political climate, movements like Hisb-ut-Tahrir and Minhaj-ul-Quran are off bounds for any aspiring politician in any party. Period.
- Second, candidates who appeal (exclusively) to an ethnic electorate will always be under suspicion for literally speaking with two tongues. Khan’s “support” for Hisb-ut-Tahrir could strictly speaking be interpreted as a support for the freedom of speech and association, but as he is a Pakistani and getting his votes from the Pakistani community, he is automatically suspected of fifth column-activity. Rudaizky’s defection could be seen as proof that Danes have a deep distrust of immigrant communities.
Finally, there is the Berndtson defection. My best guess is that we are down to a question of office here, to use political science lingo. Berndtson had held hopes of succeeding Jens Kramer-Mikkelsen as First Mayor but was rejected for a number of reasons – the dirty one being a scandal about her appointment of a former partner to an administrative post. When Ritt Bjerregaard declared that she would not nominate Berndtson as Mayor, Berndtson was a spent force with no future in the Social Democratic organisation. As she doesn’t have anything to lose, she can now retaliate by hitting Bjerregaard and her allies in the party where it really hurts.
Note: Weekendavisen’s and partially Berlingske Tidende’s websites are paysites so direct links to the papers’ articles would be less useful but both newspapers have reported in depth on the story during the last two weeks. The homepage of the local Danmarks Radio station has a convenient overview of articles relating to the developments following the election.