SF has been involved in the Danish government more or less formally three times. All have ended in splits and disasters. The first time was 1966-1968 when the “red cabinet” – an informal agreement between the Social Democrats and SF – ended in a split where the left-wing left SF to form a new radical socialist party. The split also signalled the end of the Social Democratic government.
Following the 1971 election, Jens Otto Krag managed to create a parliamentary basis for a Social Democratic government through agreements with SF and two MPs elected in Greenland. This time both SF and the Social Democrats were affected by internal struggles: Right-wing Social Democrat left his party and brought down the government in spectacular fashion in November 1973, triggering the “earthquake election”. At that time SF was reduced to a side-show engaged in bitter internal disputes and almost overshadowed by the resurgent Communists and the Left Socialists.
The 1990 election actually yielded a majority of Social Democrats, Social Liberals and SF but the Social Liberals – who had just left an unhappy alliance with the Conservatives and the Liberals did not want to pave the way for a government supported by SF. So, the party was stuck on the sidelines even if it played a role in the post-Maastricht negotiations.
Finally, there was the SD-SF pact which resulted in electoral defeat for both parties in 2011 but which due to the wins for the Red-Green Alliance and Social Liberals made a three-party coalition of Social Democrats, Social Liberals and SF possible. And from that day on, everything which could possibly go wrong for the party went wrong. The Thorning-Schmidt government was a disaster waiting to happen – even if I, like most people, expected the disaster to happen at the 2015 general election.
But the centrifugal forces were too strong and SF has come apart before our very eyes in a way seldom seen in an established democracy. It may seem symbolic that a controversial deal with US investment bank Goldman Sachs triggered the collapse of the party leadership and the coalition – but we should remember that the Goldman Sachs deal was the trigger: Deep and strong forces were at play.
If we look at the research conducted by Tim Bale and Richard Dunphy, SF in 2011 actually failed on all conditions for a successful left-wing participation in government: 1. The party had lost votes in the 2011 election, 2. While the government declaration was quite detailed, it offered few concessions to traditional SF policies and standpoints, 3. The foundation in the party organisation turned out to be much weaker than expected (actually, the organisational reforms designed to streamline SF for government hadn’t led to a change in party culture), 4. Support from aligned organisations was weak and 5. The party’s leadership soon revealed massive weaknesses. Whether Villy Søvndal had been buried in ministerial duties or he was marked by the early signs of the illness which ended his political career in 2013 is a matter of discussion but SF was definitively drifting already from the autumn of 2011. The election of Annette Vilhelmsen as party leader in 2012 only made things worse: She may have reflected the party organisation’s unease with the government’s policies but lacked the powers to unite and mobilise party activists.
All in all, a dismal picture, and by now the party’s existence is called into question. One problem will be to find a competent leader who can mobilise what is left of the organisation and parliamentary group, another to create a platform between a seriously weakened Social Democracy and a strengthened Red-Green Alliance (we may note that MPs defect to the Social Democrats while voters leave in both directions).