Remember 2010? This was the year when SF and its chairman Villy Søvndal were still able to walk on the water and perform other miracles. Actually, serious people wondered if there was a chance that SF could actually overtake the Social Democrats and become the largest party on the left wing of Danish politics. We were talking 20% of the vote here.
The Social Democrats continue to be in a rot, languishing around or even well below 20% of the vote – in many ways, the decline of the Social Democrats is eerily reminiscent of the implosion of the Dutch Christian Democrats – but for SF it has been downhill all the way since 2010. Eventually, Villy Søvndal declared his resignation as party chairman – observers still debate if he jumped or was pushed.
What we had – or thought we had – was this: An old red-green party with a strong emphasis on membership participation had been transformed and mainstreamed into a “workerist” left-wing party with a strong executive. So there was a change in policy – out went the green image and the focus on permanent and temporary welfare recipients, in came breaks for the hard-working families – as well as in organisation – out went the membership-focussed organisation, in came a strong parliamentary executive. All with the charismatic and often erratic Villy Søvndal as the figurehead and people like Ole Sohn and Thor Möger Pedersen as the engineers.
At some point, Søvndal’s grasp on the electorate started to vane, Möger Pedersen failed to win a seat at the 2011 elections and Sohn mysteriously disappeared from the public eye, leaving … well, what exactly?
Losses in opinion polls can only go so far before the MPs get restless and start considering their own future, and the membership organisation began wondering if the loss in direct influence had paid off in SF influence on government policy.
Typically, Søvndal’s resignation appeared as part accident, part strategy with the 29-year old Minister for Health Astrid Krag as the likely successor with some symbolic unknown challenger pulled out of the sleeves of disgruntled members.
As it turned out, we had the unknown challenger: Annette Vilhelmsen, a first-term MP with a background in local politics on Funen.
Curiously, this opened for the third membership vote in a row where a candidate for the “moderate” wing is pitched against a candidate for the “traditionalist” wing: In 1991 Sten Gade lost to Holger K. Nielsen, in 2005 Pia Olesen (Dyhr) lost to Villy Søvndal and it increasingly looks like Astrid Krag will have to hope for the moderate wing to be third time lucky with Annette Vilhelmsen pulling off a far more convincing performance than anybody had expected. (Note incidentally that both candidates for the position as chairman are women)
But what would a win for Vilhelmsen mean?
In policy terms, the outcome is far from certain: Both Nielsen and Søvndal were seen as traditionalists but pulled the party towards the political centre. Vilhelmsen’s task is more complicated as SF is now a part of the government (and a government following the austerity policies of the EU). Combining the welfare and the workerist approaches into something reasonably coherent and acceptable for the two partners in government will take a lot of strategic skill. Still, we have a history of SF Nixons going to China and Vilhelmsen could be a leader combining leftist credentials with centrist strategic skills.
In organisational terms, the big risk is that the faction supporting Astrid Krag could start an all-out war against Vilhelmsen. Vilhelmsen might have the support of the party bases but the higher echelons all came out in support of Krag. If there is one thing voters hate more than parties having the wrong policies, then it is parties consumed by internal struggles. If Krag wins, she will have to make peace with a large section of the organisational base; if Vilhelmsen wins, she will have to accomodate party executives.
In the eye of this storm we have one of the most curious figures ever to have appeared in Danish politics: Tax Minister Thor Möger Pedersen. Möger Pedersen combines a supreme strategic talent with a complete lack of ability to connect with either voters or party members. In many ways he is a descendent of Social Democratic notabilities like Jens Otto Krag or Mogens Lykketoft: Both immensely gifted politicians who just lacked that magic element which will make a political leader tick with voters and activists.
On October 13 we will know who will be the next chairman of SF. What we will not know, is the political direction SF will take.