While the world’s economic system is crashing all around us and Danish parliamentary politics have descended into some kind of absurd theatre, the questions about the futures of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Finance Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen continue to occupy the media. Even if Løkke Rasmussen has been battered by media – latest by an opinion poll promising a massive decline in electoral support for the Liberals under his hypothetical leadership – he is still very much the heir presumptive, should Anders Fogh Rasmussen step down during this electoral term.
But political journalists’ speculations aside: What are the chances of a smooth handing-over of power in the Liberal party and the Prime Minister’s office?
As it is, Denmark is one of those countries where prime ministers do not go gently into that good night. Most have been thrown out of office, either by the electorate or parliament, and never succeeded in making a come-back, but dying in office also used to be a Danish speciality. If we look at the last resignation of prime ministers since 1901, the causes of political death were the following:
- Resigned voluntarily and handed over to chosen successor: Krag (1972)
- Resigned voluntarily: Friis (1920), Buhl (1945)1
- Died in office or resigned due to illness: Stauning (1942), Hedtoft (1955), H.C. Hansen (1960), Kampmann (1962)2
- Lost internal support: Deuntzer (1905), Christensen (1908)3
- Lost parliamentary support: Holstein-Ledreborg (1909), Kristensen (1947)4, Hartling (1975), Jørgensen (1982), Schlüter (1993)
- Lost election: Berntsen (1913)5, Neergaard (1924), Madsen-Mygdal (1929), Eriksen (1953), Baunsgaard (1971), Nyrup Rasmussen (2001)
- Other: Zahle (1920), Liebe (1920), Scavenius (1943/5)
If we add that Krag’s resignation in 1972 came as a complete surprise to everybody and that Anker Jørgensen wasn’t in any way tipped as a successor and hadn’t even served as a government minister, the odds for a smooth transition of power begin to look high.
But how about the Liberal leadership? Here we have to discard the first 28 years of parliamentarism because the Liberal party technically didn’t exist as a national organisation before 1929, but since then the party has had eight chairmen. Most have ended with a whimper and not a bang:
- Madsen-Mygdal 1929-1941 (marginalised politically)
- Kristensen 1941-1949 (marginalised politically)
- Sørensen 1949 (personal matters)
- Eriksen 1949-1965 (failed in forming governments 1953, 1957, 1960, 1964)
- Hartling 1965-1977 (failed in forming governments 1975, 1977, left for UNHCR)
- Christophersen 1977-1985 (no chance of becoming PM, left for European Commission)
- Ellemann-Jensen 1985-1998 (failed in forming governments 1994, 1998)
- Fogh Rasmussen 1998-
Again, the prospects of a smooth transition are slim. This doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, but in a Danish historical perspective, it would be highly unusual. But then so is the right-wing majority governing since 2001.
Update: J.O. Krag resigned in 1972, not 1973.
- Both Friis and Buhl are special cases. They should be considered interim Prime Ministers. [↩]
- Four dead or seriously ill PMs in twenty years. Well done, Denmark [↩]
- The Alberti scandal [↩]
- Technically, Kristensen didn’t resign until after the 1947 election which gave the Liberals a massive win – but at the expense of potential partners [↩]
- The fall-out of the 1913 election was complicated. Berntsen wanted to stay on, and he originally found support among Social-Liberals and Social Democrats but was denied by none other than I.C. Christensen [↩]