I’ve used Medium to post some notes about Danish politics. The following posts are all in Danish:
Danish politics after the 2015 election (1) – from October
Danish politics after the 2015 election (2) – from May
I’ve used Medium to post some notes about Danish politics. The following posts are all in Danish:
Danish politics after the 2015 election (1) – from October
Danish politics after the 2015 election (2) – from May
The process which led to the announced resignation of the Danish Food and Environment Minister Eva Kjer Hansen was a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Along the way, the process revealed some of the vulnerabilities of the incumbent Liberal government and prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s way of handling controversial issues and political partners.
An executive summary of the affair would read something like this: The Food and Environment Minister proposed changes to the regulation of fertilization of cultivated areas which would allow for an increased level of nitrogen emissions. It was revealed that the proposal had been prepared in close cooperation with the agrarian splinter group “Bæredygtigt Landbrug” (“Sustainable Agriculture”), rather than the official interest organisation “Landbrug og Fødevarer” (The Danish Agriculture and Food Council) and that some of the calculations behind the proposal had been made in such a way as to conceal the short-term effects of increased emissions on the environment.
When news of the doctored calculations were published, the Conservatives on Tuesday declared that while they would support the proposed changes in the Folketing, they had lost confidence in the minister. Normally, a statement of this kind would lead to the resignation of the minister in question. Prime minister Løkke Rasmussen, however, decided to raise the stakes considerably Tuesday evening by calling all leaders of the three other centre-right parties to a meeting, hinting that the minister would only resign after a vote of no confidence in the Folketing and that a vote could result in a snap election. Following several rounds of negotiations, especially between Løkke Rasmussen and Søren Pape Poulsen, the leader of the Conservatives, Food and Environment Minister Kjer Hansen on Saturday announced her resignation while a possible amendment to the original proposal, aimed at limiting the short-term impact of the increase in fertilization levels and nitrogen emissions, has been left hanging in the balance.
Several aspects make the affair noteworthy.
First, even if the first Fogh government had an anti-environmentalist agenda – which was later reversed – the present Liberal government stands as the most aggressively agrarian Danish government since the luckless Madsen-Mygdal government of the late 1920s. This created the potential for a conflict with the ailing Conservative Party which has tried to occupy a moderate environmentalist position since the mid-1980. The Liberals’ calculation may have been that the Conservatives following the party’s latest electoral defeat would be too weak and scared of the prospect of an early election to press demands on these issues.
Second, the Liberal agricultural policies have been formulated in close cooperation with “Bæredygtigt Landbrug”, an aggressively anti-environmentalist splinter group mobilising some 4000 Danish farmers, rather than the established interest organisation, the Agriculture and Food Council. Politiken editor Bo Lidegaard in a column published last Sunday suggested that this was a result of another set of strategic calculations by the Liberal leadership. In Lidegaard’s interpretation, the Liberals found themselves competing with the anti-regulation and anti-environmentalist Liberal Alliance for not only votes but also economic contributions from the farming community and as “Bæredygtigt Landbrug” effectively organizes the larger farmers, economic considerations would lead the Liberals to follow “Bæredygtigt Landbrug’s” agenda. If Lidegaard is right, this would mean that the traditional corporative system of governance in agricultural policy with the Agriculture and Food Council playing a central part is being replaced by a competitive system where control of parties’ sources of income is the central power resource.
Third, rather than following the usual path of de-escalating the conflict following the Conservative declaration of no confidence – which was backed by the five opposition parties – Løkke Rasmussen reacted by escalating the conflict. Here, the question is if – or rather to which degree – Løkke Rasmussen was playing a short or a long game. In the short game, Løkke Rasmussen’s aim would be to force the Conservatives to back down from the declaration of no confidence. This would be an unprecedented move and would destroy any leverage the Conservatives might have in the present Folketing. In Løkke Rasmussen’s calculations this would remove one source of conflict during the electoral term – especially with regard to tax policy – as any threat the Conservatives might present would already be discounted as not credible. Ideally, this would also lead to the final demise of the historically weak Conservatives at the next election.
Here, the outcome suggests a major miscalculation by Løkke Rasmussen as the Conservatives upheld their position, even at the threat of an early election in March or April. What Løkke Rasmussen and the Liberals can aim for now is the withdrawal of the proposed amendments to the original changes in fertilization legislation. At the same time, the Conservative leader has demonstrated his stamina in negotiations with the notoriously shrewd prime minister, not only in the electoral arena but just as importantly in the parliamentary arena.
The long game would be aimed not at the Conservatives but at the other two parties which form the parliamentary basis of the government, the Danish People’s Party and Liberal Alliance. Liberal Alliance, in particular, has demanded significant cuts in income taxes since the 2015 election and toyed with the prospect of forcing an election on tax policy during 2016 if the government does not accommodate the party’s demands. Løkke Rasmussen’s brinkmanship on the fertilizer issue could have been a way of warning Liberal Alliance leader Anders Samuelsen that there will be a very limited room for negotiations when the government presents its tax reform proposals some time during 2016. Here, the outcome of last week’s stand-off may have been to expose the Løkke Rasmussen’s fragile parliamentary base on environmental and – politically more important – economic policy.
Denmark hit the pages of the international press before Christmas when Integration Minister Inger Støjberg’s proposal to have asylum seekers searched and stripped of any valuables (the corresponding bill is due to be passed by the Folketing by a broad majority in January 2016) was compared to the German government’s confiscation of Jewish property, including stripping Jews of jewelry, before eventually deporting them to extermination camps, before and during World War II. Given that Danish politicians since 1945 have made the most of the rescue of Danish jews in 1943 – while at the same time conveniently forgetting the, mostly succesful, attempts by Danish governments to block the migration of German jews and other political refugees in the run-up to the war – this was obviously a story which had the potential to tarnish the reputation of Denmark in general and the Danish government in particular.
It should be no surprise to observers of Danish politics that Danish public opinion has been dominated by anti-immigrant sentiments since the 1990s and that an anti-refugee and islamophobic stance these days is a winning formula in national elections – not just for the Danish People’s Party: The Liberals, the Conservatives and the Social Democrats have all wanted a piece of the action. Even if xenophobia and islamophobia are dominant phenomena in contemporary politics in most of Europe, the crudeness of the Danish debate now makes it noteworthy internationally.
Still, I would argue that comparing the Danish bill and the policies of the Nazi government is leading us down the wrong track. If anything, Denmark of 2015 should be compared with Denmark and other countries of 1938 which refused to receive German Jewish refugees, rather than the government which persecuted the Jews. On the other hand, the Støjberg proposal does have some interesting historical parallels and examining them may yield some insights into how governments handle new social problems.
If we go back to the 19th Century, this was a period characterized by massive social changes – most notably industrialization which again led to an unprecedented growth in population in Europe and North America, urbanization and the emergence of an urban working class. Even if industrialization led to an overall increase in living standards, it was followed by massive and especially visible poverty while large groups of the population at the same time enjoyed a new degree of geographic mobility.
All of this had effects on the political system and legislation as economic and political elites began to fear the destructive effects of poverty and mobility on society. The solution was not the introduction of measures to alleviate poverty or encourage mobility, rather “the pauper” emerged as the major threat to society in academic and political discourse.
Paupers not only were mobile but also unwilling to work – in this era poverty was seen as a result of individual failure and relief seekers were by definition undeserving poor – and the political solution to the pauperism problem consisted in excluding the poor from society by denying them political and economic rights and in introducing draconian measures designed to deter people from seeking public assistance. Poor houses as we know them were a creation of the 19th Century, not of traditional poor relief systems, and the mid- and late-19th Century saw a wave of poor houses (or rather: work houses) being erected throughout the country.
Even if a pauper wasn’t detained in a poor house, he or she was still at the mercy of local authorities. The first action was – you’ve guessed it – to search a relief applicant’s body and home for any valuable objects which could be used to pay for food, clothes and housing. As a pauper, you basically lost all rights to your entire property. You also lost the right to live with your family as authorities could separate spouses.
The 1891 Poor Law eased the regime somewhat as the political understanding of the causes and effects of poverty had begun to change and politicians began to distinguish between deserving and undeserving poor but it was only in 1961 that the last remnants of the strict 19th Century regime ware removed from the Danish social legislation and we may argue that the image of the undeserving poor has made a comeback in the social policy of the 21st Century.
The parallel between paupers and asylum seekers (note that the term “migrant” is used by a large section of Danish media and politics, implying that asylum seekers in general do not seek so escape political persecution) is by no means perfects but the proposals of 2015 have an uncanny similarity with the policies of the 19th Century:
First, social change (globalization) have created new groups of people who do not fit the categories of the existing social order – in Europe religion (Islam) has been the major factor of stigmatization. Refugees are generally described as uncontrollable in numbers, unwilling and unable to fit into the fabric of the existing social order (an individual failure) and as putting an unreasonable economic and administrative burden on society.
Second, the solution is to restrict political and economic rights of asylum seekers in an attempt to deter them from seeking support. If a person despite these attempts manages to pass the gates of the asylum system, he or she is then systematically stripped of rights, including access to his or her property and family, in the hope that asylum seekers will return to their homelands.
Research into the creation of modern social policy has shown that it wasn’t the socio-economic factors like the level of poverty or the degree of urbanization or industrialization which led governments to adopt more liberal policies. Rather it was a political factor – authoritarian governments’ fear of political rebellion by the emerging working class – which caused governments in countries like Germany and Denmark to be frontrunners in the introduction of reformist social policies.
Unfortunately, as the European countries of 2015 are fully democratized, this historical parallel suggests that the chances of governments opting for more liberal policies in the face of increasing numbers of refugees are slim.
As a commentator put it, Bjarne Corydon’s transfer from the Social Democrats to McKinsey was an unsurprising surprise. Many Danish politicians have moved from the world of party politics to that of interest organisation politics or semi-public boardrooms while shifts to private business has been more unusual, even if some politicians have made second careers (and large fortunes) in the corporate world. Moving from politics to an international business advisor like McKinsey, on the other hand, is virtually unheard of in Nordic politics.
On the other hand, Corydon and McKinsey in many ways appear like a perfect fit. First of all, it may be argued that Corydon’s main role was that of a policy advisor rather than politician. In fact, when Corydon attempted to present himself as a Social Democratic ideologue, the results were rarely less than cringeworthy. Notable examples were his defense of the neo-liberal post-welfare state, calls for higher levels of economic and social inequality and the claim that the Social Democrats had never been a party of the left. That the same Corydon also happened to be the man responsible for the formulation of the pre-2011 platforms “Fair Change” and “Fair Solution” only exposed the complete lack of any clear ideological base – even if we may argue that this was a major problem for the entire Danish Social Democratic party for the past decade.
Both formally and in real terms, Corydon’s role was always that of assistant to the party leader. As leader of the political staff of the Social Democratic parliamentary group,he was slated for a government portfolio in the Thorning Schmidt government, but everybody expected him in a position as direct aide to the prime minister with Henrik Sass Larsen taking on the difficult but politically central portfolio as Finance Minister. Events – to use Harold MacMillan’s phrase – put Corydon in charge of the Finance Ministry and forced him to develop a close political teamwork with the Social Liberal leader, Margrethe Vestager. And so Bjarne Corydon post-2011 emerged as a staunch defender of austerity in economic policies (thus following the ECB lead) and the continued expansion of New Public Management in public administration.
When it came to the application of NPM, it could be argued that Corydon in government was only following a tradition which had been established in the 1980s and grown evermore dominant after the turn of the century. As Finance Minister, Corydon’s lasting legacy turned out to be the school reform which was based on the abolition of any kind of self-governance in primary (and secondary) education in favour of a system of performance indicator-driven micro-management of teachers with school principals as the central agents in the implementation of national education policies.
In fact, management (meaning the implementation and monitoring of centrally defined performance indicators) was Corydon’s solution to any problem faced by the public sector. As such, the school reform and McKinsey was a match made in heaven and the implementation of the reform outsourced from the civil service to the international consulting business. And one of Corydon’s last major initiatives turned out to be the wholesale outsourcing of the development of a system of micro-management for the entire public sector from the Ministry of Finance to McKinsey.
With a bit of luck, Danish government ministries (and all other public agencies) will be reduced to agents of McKinsey in the years to come and what could be more obvious for the man who made these policies operational to change from the side implementing the policies to the side controlling them? Corydon’s reputation as a Very Serious Person on the political stage may also be of great help to McKinsey, despite – or because of – the lack of any normative core. The means have become the goal itself.
Prompted by an analysis in the Danish business paper Børsen – posted as an update on Facebook
Some notes about the new government and its programme:
1. Kristian Jensen was booted upwards as Foreign Minister. Yes, it is a traditionally prestigious portfolio but the Foreign Ministry these days plays second fiddle to the Prime Minister’s Office and despite being a member of the two central government committees, he will be abroad for much of the time. Lars Løkke Rasmussen and Claus Hjort Frederiksen will form the central axis in the new government.
2. The government programme is characterized by the government’s status as a single-party government which will have to seek support for its policies in the Folketing on a case-by-case basis. It is fairly close to the Liberal Party’s platform but also unspecific on a number of central issues. We still have to see how the government will turn the programme into specific bills.
3. I have a professional interest in social and employment policies so let me note that the old Social Affairs portfolio has been effectively dismantled and distributed on the Employment, Immigration, Interior, Health and Business portfolios. The Employment portfolio, incidentally, is now very similar to the UK Department for Work of Pensions (with the new minister having the task of proposing and implementing something related to the UK Universal Credit system).
4. The low share of women ministers has been noted. The Danish Liberals always were a very masculine party – you could even argue that the party culture under Lars Løkke Rasmussen has a laddish element to it – even if it has had a number of strong female politicians from the 1950s onward. It remains to be seen if this batch includes a Helga Petersen, Nathalie Lind or Britta Schall Holberg of the 2010s.
And we have a government: The first round of negotiations after the election showed that a four-party majority coalition was off the table and the second round did away with all other coalitions leaving us with a Liberal single-party government based on 34 of the 179 seats in the Folketing. In quantitative terms, Løkke Rasmussen’s second government will be the weakest since Poul Hartling’s 1973-1975 government.
Based on Friday’s media reports, EU policy appears to have been the breaking point in the negotiations between the Liberals and the Danish People’s Party with the Liberals wanting to comply openly with EU rules about free movement but the election campaign has shown that several dimensions are at play here with the four “Blue” parties positioned differently on each dimension. This become even more complicated when we add the parties in the “Red” bloc.
Consider these cases based on my impression of the campaign and the 2011-2015 term:
The best way to describe this is to say that the Liberals are somehow close to the centre on most dimensions and they are the party which is the closest to the intersection of all four dimensions. So we should expect a Liberal government to have the largest degree of freedom in creating parliamentary majorities, provided that the other parties accept the patchwork nature of cooperation in the coming term.
One final consideration: Liberal single-party minority governments have traditionally performed poorly. Niels Neergaard’s second term in office 1920-1924 ended in chaos with regard to economic policy (a major banking crisid did nothing to help Mr. Neergaard) while Th. Madsen-Mygdal (1926-1929), Knud Kristensen (1945-1947) and Poul Hartling (1973-1975) all overplayed their cards on the parliamentary arena and lost power, even despite clear electoral wins for Kristensen and Hartling. Lars Løkke Rasmussen is probably a shrewder negotiator than any of his four predecessors1, even if he is unpopular among voters so the systemic factor (the Liberals at the intersection) and the individual factor (Løkke Rasmussen) could play in the new government’s favour.
There are many ways of summarizing the 2015 election. One way is to look at the size of the various political blocs in a historical perspective.
The “five blocs” division was one I made back in 1988 when I wrote my MA thesis on the development of the Danish political system. The problem was if the fragmentation of the system post-1973 had also led to a political polarization (answer: no) and one of the indicators was the development of support to centrist and extremist groups of parties. As we can see from the figure, the 2015 election is in fact characterized by a swing to the extreme right – but we should also observe a caveat: The extreme right group historically includes a number of anti-state parties but it is a bit of a hodge-podge. We have everything from anti-regulation Georgeists and libertarian Liberal Alliance over right-wing populists (Progress Party and the Danish People’s Party) to outright anti-democrats (e.g. the National Socialists and Peasant Party of the 1930s and 1940s) in this group.
Still, in 2015 both Liberal Alliance and the Danish People’s Party – different as they are – are outside the inner circle of parties actively seeking government office and as such they pose challenges to the established right-wing. We can also see that the losses suffered by the Liberals and the Conservatives put the core bourgeois parties back in 1973 and 1977 territory.
I’m not sure how to code The Alternative but opted to place it in the group of centre parties along with the Social Liberals. In that case, the political centre is more or less stable.
Traditionally, Danish parties have been divided into “Workers” and “Bourgeois” parties – with the Social Liberals and The Alternative coded as Bourgeois. This graph shows us that the close competition between a traditional left and right was a thing of the 1960s and 1980s. In the 21st Century, parties with a Socialist and Reformist background struggle to reach 40% of the vote.
Finally, we could take the history of the blocs from the 2015 election with the Social Liberals and The Alternative joining the “Red” or “Progressive” bloc. In a historical perspective we should note that the Social Liberals have joined forces with the Bourgeois parties several times, most notably during the VKR-era (1968-1973) and during the decade of Schlüter governments (1982-1990/93). Here, the rise of the Bourgeois parties – including the Danish People’s Party – since 2001 stand out. We could perhaps argue that while the Social Liberals controlled the median legislator between 1929 and 2001, we are now back in the situation from the 1920s where the political blocs actively fought over the control of the median.
When I wrote the posts for Makt och Politik, one of my problems was trying to figure out how a “Blue” government might look. So far, it seems that the four-party majority coalition is off the table leaving us with either a Liberal-Danish People Party coalition or a one-party Liberal government. The L-DPP coalition could count on support from around 40 % of MPs while a Liberal government would be significantly much weaker – also in a historical perspective. Below, I have tried to calculate the direct basis of all governments in the Folketing since the introduction of PR in 19181
Løkke II (a) is the alternative with a single-party Liberal government, (b) the two-party coalition with the Danish People’s Party.