Pia Kjærsgaard’s announcement that she will be resigning as chairman of the Danish People’s Party with Kristian Thulesen Dahl as her chosen successor was hardly surprising: The question was more when rather than if this change would happen. Even if DPP in particular appeals to older voters – something which sets the party apart from the typical “angry young un-educated man” of right-wing populist parties – her age (she is 65) would begin to show in the coming terms and a change during the autumn would give the party a chance to profile Thulesen Dahl in the run-up to an election which could come during 2013 or 2014.
Most of the comments have focussed on the perceived differences between Kjærsgaard’s and Thulesen Dahl’s background and style: Kjærsgaard has a lower middle-class background while Thulesen Dahl’s parents were teachers, Kjærsgaard was trained as an office worker while Thulesen Dahl has a university degree in business economics and while Kjærsgaard was seen as a politician with an emotional style, Thulesen Dahl is seen as the negotiator with a strong grasp on policy details. All in all, a woman of the people is replaced by a man of the parliament and this raises some questions about the future direction of the DPP. Or so we are told.
The reality is more complicated. First of all, Kjærsgaard was always concerned with turning the anarchic and often dysfunctional Progress Party into an effective parliamentary and membership organisation. Even if the PP continued to attract votes, its political impact during the 1970s and 1980s was more often than not very limited. The creation of the DPP also adopting a tightly controlled party organisation on both the membership and parliamentary arenas. Researchers have pointed out that a party like the DPP in fact in many ways is reminiscent of classical communist parties with a strong leadership which leaves little or no room to manoeuvres for the membership. Thulesen Dahl was one of the people helping to turn Kjærsgaard’s visions into realities all the way back from 1995. Kjærsgaard may have had an emotional style in public but she did have a correct appreciation of the uses of organisation and discipline and there are few signs that a change of leader will lead to any significant changes in the DPP organisation.
As Troels Mylenberg has pointed out in a perceptive commentary, Kjærsgaard often used the politics of offence as her weapon of choice (thereby curiously mirroring the behaviour of her opponents in the 2006 cartoon crisis) and many Danes would probably recognise the otherwise inimitable Yvonne from the Olsenbanden films as a major inspiration. Other prominent members of DPP – most recently Ole Hyltoft – have used the same style even if Thulesen Dahl in general has avoided making too crude statements. Consequently, while Thulesen Dahl may adopt a more mainstream style than Kjærsgaard, the party still has plenty of representatives who can play the offended-by-the-elite card. And Thulesen Dahl’s image as the perfect son-in-law will still go down well with the party’s electorate.
Finally, we shouldn’t necessarily expect a change in policy strategies because of the change of leaders. Again, Thulesen Dahl has been a core member of the DPP leadership since 1995 and the dual emphasis on anti-immigrant and welfare policies has characterised DPP strategy since the 1990s. The big difference between the present and previous electoral terms is that the DPP isn’t a supporting party to the government. On the one hand, this gives the party a freer hand in its choice of issues, on the other hand it will have fewer concrete results to show voters. What the 2011 election did show was that the DPP despite changes in the general political agenda with the general economy overtaking social and health policy and immigration as the main issue was able to hold on to its voters.
So to sum up: The change of leaders points to continuity in terms of organisational, parliamentary and electoral strategies. What we may see is a situation where Kristian Thulesen Dahl will be playing the “good cop” while other DPP representatives play the “bad cops”, delivering emotionally charged attacks on immigrants, “the elite”, the EU and so on.