The development since the September 2011 election must surely go down in history as one of the strangest periods in Danish politics. It may not be on the same level as the 1973-74II session in the Folketing which followed the 1973 earthquake election and which was one of the most tumultuous times in Danish political history but the miserable start to the three-party government’s life has been extraordinary, especially given that the present government and its supporting party, the Red-Greens, had enjoyed a lead in opinion polls during a long period leading up to the election.
So, how can we explain the malaise? Maybe we need a combination of factors to get to the core of the problem.
The 2008 fiscal crisis hit Denmark – and in particular the financial sector – hard even if Denmark continues to enjoy AAA (or comparable) ratings by international agencies. Unemployment may not be on the levels of the early 1990s but there is a real fear among many both in the private and public sectors that they could be hit by unemployment. Similarly, the bursting of the housing bubble has seen a lot of savings vanishing into thin air – not least among those who bought houses or apartments during 2004-2008.
The question is if Danish voters have a real sense of crisis. The latest rounds of wage negotiations suggest that the private sector trade unions fearing a continued haemorrhage of manufacturing jobs but the among voters the expectation could still be that the changing governments ought to do something effective against the continuing low growth following the downturn in 2008-2009.
So maybe first the Liberal-Conservative and now the Social Democratic-Social Liberal-SF governments are hit by the same curse: Lack or crisis-consciousness and short-sightedness among voters.
For most of the 1990s and 2000s Danish politics has been described as a battle for the centrist voters, a battle the Social Democrats curiously lost as the became ever more “centrist” and “responsible” in economic policy. Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s big accomplishment was to move the Liberals to the centre (or median voter) on both economic and social (i.e. immigration, law-and-order) issues.
Here, I have heard pollsters argue that voters saw the Liberals as more (though by no means extreme) right-wing in 2011 compared to 2007. This was something which opened the field for the centre-left. The problem was that the Social Democrats continued to be seen as left-wing and thus less attractive to centrist voters – some of which would never vote for the Social Liberals.
Maybe the resolution of the debate surrounding the Early Retirement Benefit helped making some of the Liberals’ perceived move to the right less important and in that way, the Liberals have been able to pull back lost voters – even if we should be aware of the fact that the Liberal strategy during much of the time since the election has been taking a passive stance. In many ways, the Liberals are what different voters imagine them to be – a bit like the Swedish Social Democrats in the period following the 2006 election when the party was without a leader.
So the question is what happens if the Liberals take a more active role and have to decide if they should become more centrist or more liberal/right-wing.
The government has become known (especially in Berlingske Tidende) as the government which broke all of its pre-election promises except the one about introducing a congestion charge for Central Copenhagen – and that one has had local Social Democratic politicians in the metropolitan area up in arms. Mobilising voters behind such a policy is not easy but the government is also facing the problem that it was forced to pass and implement the cuts in the early retirement benefit, a move which was deeply unpopular among Social Democratic and SF voters. In many other areas, the government doesn’t really stand out – at least yet.
So the government has been successful in passing the wrong reform while struggling to get its own issues on the political agenda.
Much has been said about the leaders of the Social Democrats and SF and some of the criticism points to interesting – and to some degree unexpected – weaknesses.
In my opinion, Helle Thorning-Schmidt is in many ways strategically defensive: She is good at defusing potential conflicts but this may come at the price of weakening the Social Democratic agenda. She did manage to put a working three-party coalition together but at the cost of a clearly communicated profile. (Editor’s note: How does this go together with the perceived left-wing position of the party?)
Similarly, the weakness of the SF leadership is puzzling. Between 2006 and 2010, Villy Søvndal and his entourage could hardly put a foot wrong but the party appears to have been left drifting since the summer of 2011. I find this strange given the process of political and organisational modernisation, Søvndal led. Here, more research is definitively needed.
So: It is Pining for the Fjords?
Four years is a long time in politics – much can happen to the economy (even if the Nyrup Rasmussen government lost the 2001 election despite the economy being in good shape) and we could see a ketchup bottle-effect with the government setting unmistakable prints on the political agenda. Will the Liberals’ laid-back strategy work all the way to 2015 (or 2014. Or whatever)? Will SF buckle under the pressure or will the junior partner in the government be able to reorganise itself? As the experience from Sweden 2006-2010 shows, it is dangerous calling the game to early, but the Danish government is facing problems on different levels.