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.
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.
Last week’s big media story was the publication of “Den hemmelige Socialdemokrat”, an anonymous account of the everyday life in the parliamentary group in the Danish Social Democrats. Insider accounts of the wheeling and dealing behind the thick walls of Christiansborg (that’s Borgen, if you are a foreign visitor to this page) have always fascinated the media and some parts of the public – accounts that describe an ailing party with internal power struggles are even more fascinating. It is a bit like watching a feeding frenzy in the lions’ den at the zoo. Which, incidentally, you could also do this week.
If we want to read the book as an account of the state of the Social Democrats or life in a parliamentary group, the book has some shortcomings, though. The author is anonymous and, all things considered, there are some good reasons for this: Parliamentary work contains a good deal of considerations and negotiations, and these are best done outside of the direct public eye. This also means that the author has had to leave out a large part of everyday political work – any detailed references to policy debates and committee work would reveal the identity of the author and end his or her political career pretty fast. Still, if you read the book without any further knowledge of parliamentary work, you would be excused for believing that the parliamentary group of the Social Democrats was some kind of Paradise Hotel cast with MPs rather than dysfunctional youths. So, first, we should remember that the book almost completely omits questions of policy and concentrates on politics and struggles over central posts in the parliamentary group and ministerial portfolios.
Second, the author – or the editor – decided to enhance the descriptions with fictional accounts. While the book would always have been one person’s image of the parliamentary group and in many ways biased – even if we couldn’t pinpoint the exact nature of the bias -, we have absolutely no ways of telling which parts are fiction and which fact. Again, the elements of fiction could also be a way of putting up an extra smokescreen around the author.
But all things considered, the book is a lively account confirming most of what we believe to know about the parliamentary Social Democrats: It is a frustrated organisation with a distant leadership and lack of political direction. It is perhaps not surprising that there will be a distance between backbenchers and leadership but still Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Bjarne Corydon (the real villain of the story) only manifest themselves as shadowlike characters whom the author never really manages to grasp. Which political vision guides Thorning-Schmidt and Corydon? The distance between the pre-election manifestos and post-election policies leave just about everybody confused – and convinced that the Social Liberals are somehow calling the tune.
As it is, the situation appears to be even more frustrating as the pre-election alliance with SF also meant that an opaque faction of “workerites” took over control of SF with the Social Democratic leadership following suit. The political and organisational breakdown in SF after the 2011 election which eventually led to the exit of the party from the three-party government also saw the “workerite” faction leaving more or less en bloc to the Social Democrats much to the dismay of Soc Dem backbenchers – and in my view not just because of the increased competition for positions of power in the group but also because of fundamental conflicts over policy and strategy. If the “workerites” have failed in SF and brought the party to its knees, what are the prospects for the Social Democrats (even if there are some major differences in organisational culture between the two parties)?
The portraits of leaders one step down on the ladder (Henrik Sass-Larsen, Carsten Hansen) are livelier but not really surprising: They come across af typical hard men who run the day-to-day business in parliamentary group. Any parliamentary group.
Then there are the mythical “coffee clubs” which have attracted the attention of political journalists since that expert of personal branding, Ritt Bjerregaard, introduced the concept in the early 1970s. The creation of personal networks and recruitment of newcomers to “coffee clubs” is the object of much attention both inside and outside the group but as a reader I was left with the impression that the existence and relative strength of the respective “clubs” – or factions, if you will – are almost irrelevant when we look at the Social Democrats’ general policy and strategy.
Is the description lacking something here or do media put too much emphasis on these groupings? In the case of SF we can see that a faction has played a major role in determining the course of the party – even if the party leader’s decisions of strategy may have been the most important factor driving the strategic and organisational changes in SF between 2005 and 2012. The situation in the Social Democratic Party looks less obvious. Cynics would argue that the Social Democrats have been controlled by the SF between 2007 and 2011 and by the Social Liberals since 2011 and that the party leadership in any event needs a considerable range in its freedom of action in order to function in the complicated environment which the Folketing is.
To conclude: The book is fun to read for political junkies but while the author (helped by the editor?) has a talent for individual portraits, it lacks the more principled outlook which could have sparked a much-needed debate over the political direction and organisation of an troubled governing party.
Just a quick note on the wording of the Royal Resolution which mentions that Helle Thorning-Schmidt continues as prime minister (as well as a number of ministers from the three-party coalition). After discussing the matter, my best guess is that the Royal Court and the Prime Minister’s Office want to emphasise that the parliamentary basis of the two-party coalition of Social Democrats and Social Liberals has been considered.
Does this make the coalition a new government in the legal sense? Probably not, but this is a case for specialists in constitutional law and it points to the finer complications when you have a) minority governments and b) no investiture. Still, in political science and practical terms, the two-party coalition will count as a new government.
Monday has hardly begun and I am being dragged into a discussion about the status and name of the (new) Danish government. So, a) do we have a new government and b) what should we name it?
The answer to a) is: It depends. From a legal point of view, the prime minister has not resigned and there is no appointment or reappointment of a prime minister. So we a dealing with the same government being reshuffled. The all of the resigning ministers happen to be from the same party and that said party does not present any new ones makes no difference.
From a political science (and a practical) point of view, the composition of the government has changed with the departure of SF. In the research litterature, the reshuffle of February 2014 will count as a new Danish government where a three-party minority coalition is replaced by a two-party minority coalition. That the parliamentary basis of the government hasn’t changed – Helle Thorning-Schmidt still relies on the support of the Social Democrats, the Social Liberals, SF and the Red-Greens to survive a vote of confidence – isn’t relevant here.
We may note that Denmark has rather lax rules when it comes to votes of confidence. In Germany, the term of office of the Federal Chancellor ends with the election term so every new Bundestag has to pass a vote of confidence in the chancellor. So, Helmut Kohl was elected in 1982 and reelected in 1983, 1987, 1990 and 1994 even if the composition of his government didn’t change.1 Sweden, which applies negative parliamentarism, has a vote every time a new prime minister is appointed and will be introducing a vote after each general election. But technically, there will be no provision for a vote if a party leaves a sitting government during a term.
The opposition is of course free to call a debate and test the parliamentary basis of the Social Democratic-Social Liberal coalition in a vote in the Folketing but all the huffing and puffing would only tell us what we already know: SF and the Red-Greens will prefer the present situation to an election.
Finally, the naming. Denmark has an informal tradition of numbering governments but the exact rules for numbering are unclear. If anyone decides to continue the work of Svend Thorsen and Tage Kaarsted and write volumes V and VI of “De danske ministerier”, there is no doubt that 2011-2014 will be Helle Thorning-Schmidt I and 2014-20xx Helle Thorning-Schmidt II. The rest of us needn’t be bothered, though.
PS: Here is the Royal Resolution of February 3 which curiously states that Helle Thorning-Schmidt continues as prime minister
- We’ll leave aside the issue about the integration of East German ministers between the unification and the 1990 election [↩]
The only things we can be sure of in 2014 is that there will be a European Parliament election and a referendum on the European Patent Court. The result of the former is likely to mirror the trends in national opinion polls with the anti-EU People’s Movement as the joker in the game. Trying to predict the turn-out and result of the referendum is too difficult at the moment. The government also has to appoint a new European commissioner – most likely a Social Democrat.
Then obviously there will be some kind of agreement over the 2015 budget – most likely a messy affair leading to a patchwork of agreements. The big question is if and how the recommendations of the government’s Productivity Commission and the Carsten Koch Committee on labour market policies will be transformed into political decisions.
I think it is safe to guess that there will not be a general election during 2014 – the government’s standing in opinion polls is simply too weak and any attempt to call an early election will be an act of suicide from the Social Democrats and SF, not just in the short term but also in the medium to long term. In fact, we are in a situation where the dynamics of Danish party system has changed fundamentally: Between 1920 and 1980, the Social Democrats were the dominant party and bourgeois governments never survived an election. Between 1980 and 2000, national politics were a more even-handed affair with left and right competing for a majority – and the support of the Social Liberals. The 21st century has so far seen the continuing demise of the Social Democrats and the party is now so weak that the left wing – including the Social Liberals – is in the exact same position the bourgeois parties used to be in: Internally fractured and strategically disadvantaged.
To some extent, the Thorning Schmidt government increasingly looks like contemporary the left wing version of the luckless Baunsgaard government which was in office between 1968 and 1971: Just as the Baunsgaard government promised a break with the expanding welfare state of the 1960s and failed to deliver, so the Thorning government promised a break with the increasing inequalities of the 2000s and failed to deliver.
Contemporary and later-day observers noted the continuites between the Krag and the Baunsgaard governments and viewed from 2014 the same in my opinion goes for the Fogh/Løkke and Thorning Schmidt governments. Here, we should note that it wasn’t because the Baunsgaard government failed to achieve anything (lots of administrative and policy reforms were passed and implemented) but the government was so constrained by electoral, administrative and economic structures with a healthy dose of Zeitgeist thrown in for good measure that it would have taken an extraordinarily strong political leadership to break with the trend. The same goes for the Thorning Schmidt government with the Social Liberal insistence on the implementation of cuts to the early retirement benefit and unemployment benefits as the (symbolic) original sins. If anything, the major break in economic policy came in 2010, not in 2011, and basically the years since 2008 have been lost years with economic growth flatlining. (The 1968-71 parallel would be the continued increase in public expenditures and taxation)
German has the wonderful term “Zweckoptimismus” – forced optimism may be the best English translation – and the government definitively needs a healthy dose of this to make it through 2014 as a reasonably functioning unit. The problem is that the more Zweckoptimistisch the government, the more detached from political and electoral realities it will appear.