I’ve written a two-part discussion (in Danish) for the blog Makt och politik about the formal and real issues faced by the incoming prime minister. You can find the first part here.
As we could expect, government spokesmen are now doing everything they can to talk up the feeble upturn in Danish economy. The narrative is simple: “Fogh (and Løkke) ruined Danish economy, we saved it”.
And as always, the sensible reply is: Not so fast, Poindexter. I’m not an economist and right now don’t have easy access to economic statistics, so this post will lack many of the intermediate arguments, but this is how a criticism of the Danish governments could look like:
First, was the boom of the mid-00s unsustainable and did the Fogh and Løkke governments do too little to stop an unsustainable development in the economy?
Probably. The curious thing is that when I have looked at time-series from the 00s, what strikes me is that the levels of economic growth look inconspicuous. The mid-00s boom was most of all characterised by booming housing prices (and it makes sense to speak of a bubble here) and rising employment. Behind all of this may have been issues related to too lax a regulation of the financial sector in Denmark. Wemay ask if Danish politicians have learnt the lesson about the dangers of lax financial regulation and housing booms.
Second, the direct long-term effects of the financial crisis.
Financial and banking crises take a long-term toll on the real economy. The lack of confidence and debt-minimizing strategies mean that economic acitivty is depressed for several years after the main event. Denmark post-2008 fits this pattern. It was always reasonable to expect that economic activity would pick up at one point. Still, the post-2008 period is one where the performances of nearly all European economies have been dismal.
Third, post-2010 austerity policies.
Denmark like most European countries have followed a strict austerity policy since 2010. The idea has been to limit and if possible reduce government debts. This again follows the provisions of the European Growth and Stability Pact. However, the combined attempt at reducing public *and* private debt at the same time has the effect of depressing the economy. In short, we could argue that the economic policies of the Danish governments since 2010 (and this includes both the Løkke and the Thorning-Schmidt governments) have led to the Danish economy underperforming compared to a standard trend. This means that economic growth sonce 2010 has been lower and unemployment higher than necessary.
Similarly, the efforts of both the Løkke and Thorning-Schmidt governments have concentrated on increasing the supply of labour while the demand for goods and services have been under tight controls. The cuts to the unemployment insurance – and other forms of income transfers – have been the political Achilles’ heel of the Thorning-Schmidt government but perhaps the effects of the economic policy orthodoxy on the political and economic systems merit greater scrutiny when political scientists and historians start begin their forensic analyses of the wreck of social democracy.
First, the leader of the Danish People’s Party, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, in a casual blue shirt and pullover. Message “You know where we stand”:
Then, the leader of the Social Democrats, prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, in a suit with a red shirt. Message aimed at the Liberal Party. Interestingly, the PM is placed between the red and the blue parts of the poster.
Prompted by a question posed by Martin Krøger on Twitter: Has the quality of political debate in Denmark increased or declined over the years?
Good question – and one which is very hard to answer in a single word. But I’ll give it a try.
My qualifications for discussing this is that I over the last thirty years have followed and analysed selected political debates in the media, other publications and in the Danish parliament in a period covering the 1890s until today. My studies are by no means exhaustive and this discussion is not in any way systematic but rather reflects my impressions of developments.
First, I should say that I have practically given up following TV news and televised debates these days.
The problem with TV news is that reports almost exclusively focus on statements or sound-bites. What we get are claims without arguments and this is deeply frustrating when you have any interest in the subject being covered. Contemporary TV is very good at manipulating our emotions but it comes at the price of information. The same goes for televised debates – the dramaturgy is pretty obvious: Have somebody with extreme viewpoints shout at each other for 45 minutes. The issue is less important. Again, TV has specialised in dramaturgy and emotional manipulation but at the price of delivering any substantial coverage of issues. This isn’t a particularly Danish phenomenon – for what it is worth, I see British and Swedish contacts complain about the quality of political coverage in UK and Swedish with similar arguments. It is harder to tell how much the dramaturgy has changed but my impression is that news coverage and debates are less interesting than they were 30 years ago.
On the other hand, I am a policy nerd and we should accept that many people watch TV news and debates to have their own opinions confirmed or simply for kicks. I am in fact not so sure that TV damages politics directly – this problem is more likely that there can be a disconnect between the ways voters and supporters are mobilised and the way policies are decided.
When we look at print media and the internet (excluding social media platforms), the image is less clear but I would argue that as an ordinary citizen you have access to better information today than previous generations. Take a look at a newspaper from the 1960s and today’s “quality” newspapers are of a different world. The internet and digitization has been a major challenge to print media since the turn of the century but our access to relevant information and analysis is still much better than it was thirty or forty years ago. This also includes access to primary data. Obviously all of this costs money and takes time, but as citizens in a country like Denmark most of us do not really have a valid excuse for not being at least generally oriented about political and policy issues.
In my view, Denmark suffers from never really having developed a mainstream blogging community like those you would find in the US or Sweden. It is very well possible that blogging in the traditional sense is past its prime but during the 00s, blogs filled an important space in the supply of political and economic analysis. Still, it would be nice if academics and public intellectuals made better use of the internet as a channel for information.
Social media platforms can be a different story. I occasionally come across comment threads on the accounts of well-known politicians and debaters and that is an insight into a pretty dim part of the public discourse. There is a lot of hate about and in the Good Old Days, most letters to the editor would be thrown out immediately. The question is if people are more hateful today or if the gatekeeping mechanisms are less effective. On the other hand, the people I follow and interact with on Twitter or Facebook tend to keep their debates on a reasonably civil level. I’d say it is a draw: Social media have definitively made the gutter more visible but I doubt if people’s attitudes are more extreme now than they were in the 1980s or 1990s.
Finally, the politicians. Due to work, I missed the final PMQs in the Folketing and … well, I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything. This isn’t really surprising: These kinds of debates are mostly, if not exclusively, aimed at mobilising the various parties’ activists so they are all about exposing the ridiculousness of the opponent, “gotchas” and so on. The same goes for many posts by politicians – and party activists – on social media. At the same time we should remember that this parliamentary debates have always been about posturing – it’s just that the forms of posturing have changed.
From a historian’s point of view, though, I would lament the introduction of time limits in parliamentary debates. That, combined with an accelerating law-making process, means that the content value of individual speeches has declined significantly if we compare the 2010s with the 1960s.
On the other hand, a focus on debates obscures that politicians do lots of other stuff, especially negotiating in parliament and maintaining contacts to other parts of the society. Here, I would argue that most contemporary MPs have a far better grip of policy and political issues than politicians of earlier generations. We may question the social uniformity of today’s political elite but it is much more well-educated and trained than those of an earlier age.
All in all, I think the picture is mixed. On the one hand the levels of competence of both citizens and politicians have increased massively over the past generations and our access to substantive information has increased similarly.
On the other hand, the accelerating speed of the political process and the rise of 24-hour-media combined with an increased professionalism in communication, means that politicians and media focus on talking points and emotional manipulation as the means to generate interest. And this makes politics a very tedious phenomenon to follow.
We have to start somewhere so here is an overview of the performance of the main party groups in the Folketing over time. I have used the Barometer for May 12 in Berlingske’s Politiko to get an indication of where we are at the beginning of the electoral campaign.
And yes, the time series begin in 1918 with the introduction of proportional representation.
First, the Red (ie. Social Democrats, Socialists, Red-Greens and Social Liberals) versus the Blue bloc as they are formed in 2015 (and have been since 2001).
This one looks like a no-brainer. While the Blue bloc may not be performing as strongly as in 2001 and 2005, it is on course for a safe victory.
Second, a look at the traditional Workers’ and Bourgeois families. This shows how the left-wing in the general sense is historically challenged in 2015. The Social Democrats may not love the Social Liberals but they still depend on them to have any realistic chance of entering government. The close competition between parties with a socialist or reformist background on the one hand, and parties with a liberal or conservative background was a phenomenon of the 1960s and 1980s. This also points to the strategic disadvantage of the Social Democrats as it has evolved during the 21st century even if the Social Liberals have consistently supported Social Democratic-led governments since 1993.
The real drama, though, comes when we look at the state of the different groupings in the Danish party system. Here I should explain that I originally made the categories in order to analyse the dynamics of the party system in a Sartorian perspective. Basically, the question was if the Danish party system was able to integrate new parties or if the introduction of new parties threatened to pull the system apart. This also means that the right-wing, in particular, is a very heterogenous group – in 2015 it includes the ultra-liberal Liberal Alliance and the populist Danish People’s Party.
What we can see from figure is that, first, the left-wing has been able to keep the support it won in 2007 – on the other hand, the balance of power has changed so that the Red-Greens now are the stronger party while SF has lost support. This also means that the Red-Greens and, to a lesser degree in 2015, SF continue to challenge the Social Democratic dominance of the left side of Danish politics.
Second, there has also been a marked change in the balance of power on the bourgeois side – the traditional combination of Liberals and Conservatives has been weakened as the Liberals have not been able to benefit from the continuing Conservative crisis while the Danish People’s Party and, to a lesser extent, Liberal Alliance have won support.
Even if the opinion polls conducted during the 2011-2015 electoral term have seen some dramatic changes in the support for individual parties – the Social Democrats have been everywhere between 15 and 25% in polls and the Liberals similarly between 22 and 32% – my best guess is that the Folketing coming out of the 2015 election will be highly fragmented and that while Lars Løkke Rasmussen is the likely prime minister after the election, he will also face some unusual challenges in holding a parliamentary coalition of Liberals (probably weakened compared to 2011), Conservatives (in a perpetual crisis), Liberal Alliance (where the question is to what degree the party will want to compromise some of its economically libertarian policies) and the Danish People’s Party (where the conflict with the Liberals and Conservatives over EU policy still looms large).
We are entering the final months of the 2011-2015 electoral term and as things stand, it looks like Denmark may be in for its longest parliamentary term ever with the exception of the 1939-1943 parliament. One obvious reason for the longevity of the 2011 Folketing is that prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt given the continuing weak performance of the government and the left-wing in opinion polls hasn’t seen any strategic advantages in calling an early election.
In a way, Thorning’s predicament in 2015 mirrors Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s in 2011: The unloved coalition partner is facing a decline in support and while her own party has been recovering during 2015, the chances of the government surviving the election are slim.
Anyway, I have been careless enough to promise Baltic Worlds an overview of the political situation and the electoral campaign and I have a historical survey of Danish politics from 1960 to today which needs a brush-up, so in the coming weeks I’ll attempt to write some notes about Danish politics since 2011, the state of the individual parties and possible outcomes of the election.
The posts will be tagged Election2015
1. The general election
Nobody except Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt knows when the election will be held. The last possible date is in September but sometime during March to May is more likely in my view.
2. The economy and party politics
The Danish economy entered a recession in 2008-2009 and the period since 2009 has been five lost years. In fact, if we measure by GDP/person the economy has been stuck at the levels from 2004. So: Ten lost years. This has had repercussions on the political arena where voters first deselected the Liberal-Conservative coalition in 2011 and have shown consistently low levels of support for the governments led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
Denmark isn’t a member of the Eurozone but is a member of the EMU and the various governments have followed the austerity policies advocated by the ECB and the EU (and Germany, in particular). Just as in most of the EU the result has been low inflation, low rates, low or negative growth and high unemployment.
The 2015 election will not mean a change of economic policy – if anything, a Liberal-led government will tighten the austerity measures with regard to public expenditures.
3. The collapse of Social Democracy and a new structure of the party system
From 1924 to 1982 the Social Democrats were the dominant party in the Danish party system while the bourgeois parties had to deal with persistent internal splits and conflicts. Between 1982 and 2001, Danish politics was a more evenhanded affair with left and right competing for government power but the 21st century has seen the continued decline of the Social Democrats. As the 2011-2015 term has shown, Blairite (and EU-compliant) policies haven’t been vote winners for the Social Democrats and the party’s links with the (equally weakened) trade unions are as fragile as never before.
Even if opinion polls should be treated with great care, we now have a situation where three parties – the Liberals, the Danish People’s Party and the Social Democrats – hover around the 20% mark hoping for 25%, two parties – the Red-Green Alliance and the Social Liberals – a bit below the 10% mark and three parties – SF, Liberal Alliance and the Conservatives – around the 5% mark. As voters are volatile, we should perhaps talk about three larger and five smaller parties.
Finally, we now have a split left while the right is concentrated around the Liberals and the DPP. In the medium term, this will make it difficult for the left (including the Social Liberals) to form any kind of stable government.
One factor complicating matters will be the flow of voters from the Liberals to the DPP. Traditionally, the Liberals have relied on the DPP and the “value dimension” to weaken the Social Democrats but now there appears to be direct competition between the Liberals and the DPP.
4. Forming a government
All signs point to a win for the right in the 2015 election. This will mean a government led by Lars Løkke Rasmussen and the Liberals but as the Liberals are set to win somewhere between 20 and 25% of the vote, any single-party government would be a fairly weak one.
The Liberals will need the – formal or informal – support of the DPP to form and run a government but the question is if the DPP would prefer to enter a government or continue to stay outside. EU policy is the major stumbling block here with the DPP opposing further European integration while the Liberals have committed themselves to a referendum on the JHA opt-out. The new competition for voters between the Liberals and the DPP could also complicate matters.
Just adding a Conservative party languishing around 5% of the vote wouldn’t help the Liberals much in terms of parliamentary clout and a three-party coalition of Liberals, Conservatives and Liberal Alliance would still be struggling to control 35% of the seats in the Folketing and be completely dependent on the DPP in economic policy.
So my best guess is that the 2015 election will result in either a Liberal single-party government or a Liberal-DPP coalition. But political scientists are hopeless forecasters.
After a lot of huffing and puffing, there was no extra election. But hey, this is politics and huffing and puffing is what we should expect and the noises from the process shouldn’t be confused with the eventual outcome.
So, what we have is an agreement between the government and the Alliance parties opening for a rather peculiar form of minority democracy: Basically, even if neither of the two blocs win a majority in the Swedish parliament, they agree on letting the largest bloc form the government and pass the annual state budgets. The entire set-up could be compared with the rules of single-round first-past-the-post elections where a candidate doesn’t need a majority but only a plurality of the votes to win the constituency. But in terms of government formation, I think this is a first.
How did we get here in the first place? By a combination of extreme party-system pluralism (Sweden now has eight relevant parties in the parliament, including one anti-system party) and moderate pluralist mechanics (the Social Democrats and the Alliance compete for government power and have an antagonistic relationship). The problem arises when an anti-system party gets so strong that it can disrupt the usual alternation of governments – on the one hand, the Alliance doesn’t want to cooperate with the Social Democrats on political issues, on the other hand the Alliance doesn’t want to lead a government relying on the parliamentary support of the Sweden Democrats.
We could argue that the 2014-2018 Swedish parliament is no different from the 2010-2014 parliament: After all, the Alliance lost its parliamentary majority – despite increasing its share of the popular vote – following the 2010 election. The mechanics continued to work, though, because the Social Democrats were reluctant to use the Sweden Democrats to defeat the Alliance government (it did happen in a limited number of votes).
The massive Social Democratic losses in the 2010 election also meant that the Alliance could argue that a continued Alliance government would reflect the electorate’s choice. Finally, the constitutional rules in force in 2010 meant that the Social Democrats could only remove the Reinfeldt government by proposing a vote of no confidence and getting the support of the Sweden Democrats in parliament.
In 2014, both the electoral winds and the constitutional rules had changed: The Social Democrats may not have won the election, but the Alliance certainly lost – and following the new rules in the Swedish constitution there had to be a vote on the prime minister. This put everybody in an awkward situation: If the Sweden Democrats abstained from voting against Reinfeldt, there could be no majority against a continued Reinfeldt government but as Reinfeldt decisively had ruled out governing on the Sweden Democrats’ votes, he would have no working majority. On the other hand, Löfvén could only be elected prime minister by a plurality and only if either the Alliance parties or the Sweden Democrats abstained in the vote of confidence – and all similar votes during the parliamentary term. He wouldn’t get a working majority but he could get a working plurality. And this, after all the huffing and puffing, is the essence of the December agreement.
If we look at the European political systems which have had to deal with anti-system parties, the established parties have opted for one of two alternatives: Either forming some kind of grand coalition, isolating the anti-system party or parties, or trying to integrate the anti-system parties by entering formal or informal agreements with them.
The first strategy is the traditional German strategy where CDU and SPD would rather form grand coalitions than include extreme parties in governing coalitions. Giovanni Sartori – to return to the headline of this post – would argue that this blocks the healthy competition between alternative governments and in the long run leads to a surge in support for the anti-system parties. (Here, we should note that Sartori was discussing parties that were in anti-democratic such as Communist and Fascist parties or anti-parlamentarian such as the French poujadistes and Gaullists rather than today’s leftist and populist parties)
The second strategy is the Danish strategy where governments both on the left and the right have tried to create working relationships with parties of the extreme left or right and integrate them in the parliamentary mainstream. Over the years the Danish right has been considerably more successful in creating a working relationship with the Danish People’s Party than the Social Democrats in doing the same with SF and the Red-Green Alliance. One reason may be that the growth of the DPP has directly harmed the Social Democrats while the Social Democrats are also competing with SF and the RGA for voters.
The Swedish agreement is a curious creature but in my view it is closer to the first strategy: It is a grand coalition with regard to constitutional matters which attempts to cancel the impact of the Sweden Democrats. It makes sense because the Alliance is feeling the electoral competition from the Sweden Democrats (unlike the Danish Liberals who up until now did not compete with the DPP for votes) but from a Sartorian perspective we could also argue that it attempts to keep the forms of moderate pluralism in a system which effectively is polarised pluralistic. The question – which no-one can answer until 2018 at the earliest – is if this is a viable option.
Next week sees a fascinating vote in the Swedish Riksdag as the parliament has to decide on the 2015 State Budget.
The process is complicated by the fact that the Riksdag is still divided in two blocs (Social Democrats, Greens and Left Party versus Conservatives, Centre Party, Liberals and Christian Democrats) with the Sweden Democrats as an independent force and no general agreement has been reached between the government and the one or more parties from the opposition bloc. For a number of reasons, an agreement between either bloc and the Sweden Democrats has been out of the question. So, the government which commands 138 of 349 seats enter the vote without a majority even if the Left Party’s 21 seats bring the left-wing to 159 seats.
The vote gets even more complicated as it will not be a simple yes-or-no vote: There are three budget proposals on the table – a Red (proposed by the government), an Orange (proposed by the opposition Alliance) and a Blue one (proposed by the Sweden Democrats).
Now, as I understand the procedures of the Riksdag correctly (and that is a big if), the decision will be taken in a series of votes. If the proposal backed by the largest minority (Red – 159) is first put against the proposal backed by the smallest minority (Blue – 49), then Blue is eliminated, if the four Alliance parties decide to abstain. Next, Red (159) is put against Orange (141) and if the Sweden Democrats abstain, Red wins and Sweden has a budget. However, if the Sweden Democrats decide to vote for Orange against Red, Orange wins, Sweden has a budget – and a government crisis, as a defeat in a budget vote usually equals a vote of no confidence.
This is where the real fun begins. Spokesmen from the Orange bloc have attacked the Sweden Democrats for considering supporting the Orange budget – this almost equals the political version of “man bites dog” (“Politician: Don’t vote for my policies”), while Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén has declared that a lost budget vote might not mean the resignation of the government.
Basically, what is going on is everybody trying to call everybody else’s bluff by threatening to change the parliamentary customs. If we start with the Orange parties (the Alliance), they acted on the assumption that presenting a budget proposal was without risks as the proposal would be voted down. The Orange bloc could keep the Alliance alive (remember that the Conservatives are without a party leader at the moment) in the public eye, but not hold any political responsibility. By threatening to support the Alliance, the Sweden Democrats called the Alliance’s bluff by increasing the political costs of this action: If Stefan Löfvén resigns, the inability of the Alliance to form a government without SD support would be exposed. Alternatively, the parties would have to fight an electoral campaign without a leader.
However, Löfvén is calling the Sweden Democrats’ bluff by declaring that the government might work with an Orange budget. This is another way of raising the stakes: If the Sweden Democrats want to get rid of the government, they will have to table a motion of no confidence and have it passed with the Orange bloc. This would expose both the rift between the Alliance and the Sweden Democrats and the Orange bloc’s unwillingness to take over government. On the other hand, the Social Democrats will have to work with a budget it hasn’t proposed – and the government also questions a basic pillar of parliamentary government.
Finally, both the Alliance and the Sweden Democrats are trying to call the government’s bluff by exposing its weak parliamentary basis: The government has to rely on some sort of medium-term agreement with the Alliance (and not as it hopes, one or two Alliance parties).
Obviously, the Sweden Democrats could argue that they will vote on the basis of policy, rather than tactics, i.e. abstain or vote against the Red and Orange budgets. This would give the Red-Green government a year’s respite before the process repeats itself next autumn. By this time, the Conservatives and the Alliance will have a new leader and we could face one of three alternatives: 1. Three blocs confronting each other, leading to a potential deadlock, 2. A grand coalition of Red-Greens and Oranges (which might create a centrist pole confronting a Left/SD opposition) or 3. A loose cooperation between the government and one or more Orange parties, depending on the issue. It doesn’t take a political scientist to see that 3. is what Stefan Löfvén and the government hope for.