The latest news about the Danish conservatives – awful opinion polls, Per Stig Møller sniping at Lene Espersen, Lars Barfoed not coming to the rescue, party grandes criticising Espersen’s decision to move from Economics and Business Development to Foreign Affairs – raise the question of the future of the party. Entering an election campaign while you are fighting a civil war is generally not a good idea – cf. the performance of the Conservatives in 1998. and even if Mads Brügger is also a journalistic satirist, his question “Isn’t it a problem that Bendt Bendtsen now looks like a great leader in comparison?” can be put in earnest.
Historians and journalists have occasionally wondered why the Conservatives appear to be beset by regular feuds threatening to tear the party apart – the party was born with a dual identity and during the 1920s, the late 1940s, the early 1970s and finally the late 1990s it has lived through massive internal conflicts. Historian Søren Mørch has speculated that there must be some kind of link between the party’s problems in attracting and promoting competent policitians and the perpetual feuding.
One the one hand, the party has survived all of these earlier wars, on the other hand it is really, really hard to imagine potential successors to the present leadership this time.
The Conservative Party is not the only party to experience severe internal conflicts. In fact, conflicts between factions seem to be a regular feature in Danish politics with the Social Democrats as the major exception. Between the secession of the Communists in 1917 and the appearance of the anti-EEC faction in the early 1970s, the party was remarkably free of open internal conflicts.1 Needless to say, the 1990s and to some degree the 2000s were decades of party disunity with two party chairmen being unseated (Svend Auken in 1992 and Poul Nyrup Rasmussen in 2002).
The Liberal Party similarly has seen internal conflicts, most notably in the 1930s when agrarian groups threatened to pull the party apart. 1935 was a low point in the party’s history but the improvement of agricultural trade helped the party leadership recover. Still, between 1933 and 1950 the Liberal leadership was in a more or less permanent state of flux with Knud Kristensen only providing a temporary solution before going down in flames over the South Schleswig issue. It was not until Erik Eriksen took office in 1950 that the party finally stabilised. What happens if (or rather: when) the party suffers a major loss in the coming election and the entire leadership will have to be replaced is another matter. But the lesson from the Social Democrats and the Liberals could be that a party can survive prolonged periods of internal conflicts and unstable leadership, given that the party has a working organisation.
If we look at the smaller2 parties, the Social Liberals nearly imploded in 1920 and spent much of the decade being uncertain about their strategy. One faction wanted to move closer to the Liberals, another saw the party’s future as the partner of the Social Democrats. The latter strategy won following the 1929 election and the rest, as they say, is history.
Still, the question about the party’s place in the centre of Danish politics created new problems from the 1960s onward. The emphatic win in 1968 also laid the foundations for a vicious factional struggle continuing until the 1977 election when the party was close to extinction. Even if the party supported the Schlüter governments during most of the 1980s, it was only able to do so by performing a rather remarkable stunt where the left wing was being accommodated by the Social Liberals’ voting against the governments on issues such as environment, European policy and foreign and security policy. And there are signs that electoral wins are deadly for the Social Liberals as the intense feuding following the 2005 election indicates. During the last three years, the party has been losing MPs regularly, but the party leadership can hope that a rejuvenated parliamentary group placed firmly on the left side of the political divide will deliver peace and influence, if maybe not electoral prosperity.
Finally, there is the Socialist People’s Party which suffered its first major split in 1967 and descended into full-scale civil war in the early 1970s. It was only when Gert Petersen was made chairman that the party entered a stable phase and despite varying successes at the polls (1977-1987 was a period of gains, 1990-2005 a period of losses), SF has managed to steer clear of another deadly battle between factions for the past 40 years. A remarkable feat. One reason may be the ready availability of alternative left-wing parties.