Five years is a long time in politics – especially if you are a party and a party leader with your eyes firmly set on the prime minister’s office. As of today, Helle Thorning-Schmidt is the third leader of the Social Democrats since P. Knudsen (chairman from 1882 to 1910) who haven’t made it to the top office – but unlike Svend Auken and Mogens Lykketoft, she still has a chance.1
The selection of Thorning in 2005 was a proof of the extent of the crisis which hit the Social Democrats at the end of the 1990s. When she won the membership ballot, she had only been an MP for little under two months and her only previous experience as an elected representative was as an MEP between 1999 and 2004. In fact, finding a constituency for her for the 2005 election had been a bit of a problem. She was a long-shot candidate and part of her attraction was that she wasn’t Frank Jensen.
The closest parallel to Thorning would be Poul Nyrup Rasmussen whose career had also been as an employee in the Danish TUC system before he was elected to parliament in 1987 and became one of the party’s deputy chairmen. Machiavellian commenters might want to point out that Nyrup only became chairman because making Lykketoft leader was out of the question in 1992, but unlike Nyrup, Thorning for better and for worse does not have her own Lykketoft to deal with.
So, how far has the party come since 2010? The membership party is still a only shadow of past glories, although this is part of a broader development, and the share of the vote in national elections is flat. If it wasn’t for the surprising resurgence of SF, the left wing might have had class but it still wouldn’t be a contender for government power. In many ways, the party still feels insecure about its political positions and over-all role in the political system.
Reversing the rupture of 1999 has been beyond Thorning’s powers – but maybe her unorthodox background can also be also her strength in this respect: Unlike old-school Social Democrats she may be better at adapting to a situation where the Social Democrats are still the largest party of the left but no longer the dominating force. These days, Denmark has moved from the classical dominant Social Democrats-type of party system and is more like Finland with four larger parties and a number of smaller ones making up the national political scene. Surprises still happen in politics, but the prospect of a Social Democratic party winning 35-40 per cent of the national vote seems increasingly unlikely.
- For politics nerds: Thorning is the fourth chairman since Knudsen who has not been prime minister. Alsing Andersen had to step in as party chairman between 1941 and 1945 when the Germans forced Hans Hedtoft out of office. Vilhelm Buhl was prime minister 1942 and 1945 but never acted as leader of the party [↩]