For a small party like the Danish Social Liberals, losing three representatives on the national and European level in eighteen months may look a bit careless. Given that the party’s political leader Margrethe Vestager has some fifteen years of experience from national politics at the highest level as chairman of the party organisation, government minister, MP and finally political leader, incompetence at the top shouldn’t be the issue here.
Instead, a number of other factors may be at play. As just about every commentator has pointed out, the Social Liberals have been deeply frustrated since 2001 when they lost the pivotal position in Danish politics. They no longer held the median legislator – a position which had given the party a much bigger political influence than its size would suggest and, even worse, wasn’t in a position to be a necessary part of any legislative coalitions.
The spectacular gains of the 2005 election turned out to be temporary – everything was lost in 2007 – and with the benefit of hindsight, the 2005 win was as much caused by Social Democratic and Socialist weaknesses as Social Liberal strenghts. Add a Socialist leader in tune with the times, and voters defect in droves.
One problem for the Social Liberals is that their policy positions fit badly in the political landscape of the 2000s. The party has been too far to the right in economic policy by advocating labour market reforms and too far to the left in integration policy by advocating pro-immigration and multiculturalist standpoints. The fact that not everybody in Denmark loves Pia Kjærsgaard and the Danish People’s Party’s aggressive nationalist welfare policies hasn’t really helped here.
Frustrated Social Liberals have responded in different ways. Some (most notably the former political leader Marianne Jelved) followed the strategy of “Augen zu und durch“ – if we stick to our positions, the electorate will eventually see that we were right – others, like Messrs Khader and Samuelsen, carefully abandoned multiculturalism (and, less carefully, the Social Liberals). The present party leader seems committed to a pragmatic line by not promoting policies that wouldn’t stand a chance in parliament. Unfortunately, this risks making the Social Liberals invisible politically.
And then there’s Simon Emil Amnitzbøll who published an op-ed piece in … wait for it … Berlingske Tidende accusing the party of abandoning its political principles and then absented himself in New York for a month before leaving the party after a less than successful meeting with Margrethe Vestager.
The problem is that what Amnitzbøll seems to want is to make the Social Liberals more acceptable to the moderate right by going back to the ”Augen zu und durch“ strategy – keeping left in integration policy and right in labour market policy. That has been tested without success.
Strategies and big egos aside: The Social Liberals’ problem is that their political fortunes depend on the combination of forces in Danish politics. Most of the time, they have been lucky, but not for the past seven years.