Forty years ago, on December 3, 1973, Denmark became the surprising epicentre of the biggest electoral earthquake to hit a Western democracy until the collapse of the post-war Italian party system in the early 1990s. Unlike Italy, Denmark was an established parliamentary democracy with a history of alternating governments, a high level of popular engagement in politics and a sound administrative culture. Denmark had even been one of the inspirations for the Lipset-Rokkan thesis about the freezing of party systems along the cleavage lines of 1920 when the electorate had been fully mobilised and as late as in the 1974 edition of Scandinavian Political Studies, the preeminent political scientist Erik Damgaard presented an analysis of the fundamental stability of the Danish party system. Given that Damgaard was no fool, his paper today stands as a symbol for the surprising speed and size of the upheaval.
At 88.7%, turnout was the highest since the 1943 general election so the 1973 election was definitively not about political apathy. Rather, Denmark has always maintained a high level of turnout at general elections and this is still the case in the 2010s. But otherwise, the changes were massive: Some 40% of voters changed parties, all existing parties suffered massive losses and five new parties won 1/3 of the seats in the new Folketing. On top of it all, the existing blocs in the Folketing had been blown to pieces with neither SD-SF or KF-V-RV being even close to a parliamentary majority. Instead, the Progress Party, a bizarre protest movement led by Mogens Glistrup, an eccentric lawyer, entered parliament with 15.9% of the vote while the Centre Democrats, formed by renegade Social Democrat Erhard Jakobsen not even a month before the election, won 7.8%.
Given that 1973 was the year of the Yom Kippur War and the First Oil Crisis which signalled the end of the golden post-war years, it would seem obvious that the earthquake election was a reaction to the international and economic crisis but a closer look reveals that it had deeper roots. The first signs of an impending upheaval came in 1966 when the Socialist Party doubled its share of the vote, paving the way for the first left-wing majority and even if the SD-SF majority was short-lived, the extreme left established itself as a lasting influence winning over 10% of the vote in all subsequent elections.
The populist right was not a new phenomenon in Danish politics with the Georgeist Justice Party winning representation in parliament between 1926 and 1960 with a climax in the immediate post-war era and the more traditionalist Independents represented in the Folketing between 1960 and 1966. What was new was the size and – it would eventually show – stability of the support for the populist right with the Progress Party being represented until 2001 and its successor party the Danish People’s Party represented since 1995. And careful observers would note that the Progress Party had already made its breakthrough earlier in 1973 when all signs still pointed at a continuing economic boom.
As it is, given the fundamental changes Danish society had undergone since the late 1950s, a massive realignment of voters and parties was in fact less surprising than the fact that the party system had stayed somewhat stable during the 1960s and early 1970s. Like a real earthquake, the 1973 election was the result of deep tectonic movements. One central trigger was the inability of both left and right to control the growth in public expenditures which sky-rocketed in the late 1960s, turning Denmark from a low-tax agricultural society to a high-tax welfare state. Another was the issue of Danish membership of the EEC which opened fault lines within the Social Liberals and – more significantly – Social Democrats. The fall-out of the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s just added the icing to the cake.
If we want to gauge the effects of the 1973 election, we will have to separate the medium and the long-term. During the first six years following the election, Danish parliamentary politics was a mess with weak minority governments muddling though in attempts to control the fall-out from the oil and stagflation crises. Just like the First Italian Republic or the German Weimar Republic, Denmark during these years was governed by a cluster of centrist parties trying to fend off threats from the extreme left and the extreme right.
Then the polarisation subsided and from 1979 onwards a new pattern of alternating centre-left and centre-right governments emerged with the extreme left and right partially integrated into governing majorities. While the Social Democrats maintained their position as the largest party electorally and parliamentary until 2001, their days as the dominant parliamentary force ended sometime around 1980. The reelection of the centre-right Schlüter government in 1984 was the final proof that the rules of the parliamentary game had changed and that the centre-right now held the upper hand when it came to the formation of governments: The 2001 election and the continuing weakness of the Social Democrats into the 2010s can be seen as the culmination of a process which became visible in 1973.