As always, the media frenzy has moved on from when I first thought about commenting Weekendavisen’s feature article about unrest among the Social Democrats. Still, the question remains: Is Helle Thorning-Schmidt in real trouble as prime minister and leader of the Social Democrats and what are the odds of her being challenged more or less openly during this legislative term?
First, bringing down an incumbent prime minister and party leader is not exactly unheard of. The most famous victim was of course Margaret Thatcher who after 15 years as leader and 11 as prime minister had made herself an electoral liability. Even if her first challenger – Michael Hesseltine – failed, it was obvious to everybody except the Iron Lady herself and her closest allies that the game was up and she was more or less gently persuaded not to stand in the second round of the leadership election in 1990.
The Australian Labor Party has also been extremely unsentimental regarding its prime ministers: Bob Hawke was ousted by Paul Keating in 1991 while Julia Gillard discharged Kevin Rudd in 2010. Rudd, incidentally, unsuccessfully challenged Gillard in 2012.
Germany (or rather the Federal Republic) has also seen some notable casualties: Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard and to some extent Willy Brandt were all more or less gently dragged from office while an attempt to overthrow Helmut Kohl failed.
Denmark, on the other hand, has no tradition for ousting prime ministers. The last prime minister who suffered defeat by the hands of his own party during a parliamentary term was Niels Neergaard in 1909. Neergaard later survived a cabinet crisis in 1922. Despite rumours about unease among leading Social Democrats with Hans Hedtoft’s performance during his second term – which may very well have been marked by the illness and death of his wife, he was never openly challenged before his early death in January 1955. Poul Schlüter may also have been weakened during his last term in office (1990-1993) but even the notoriously unruly Conservative Party didn’t stage any attempt of a coup. Finally, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen survived the breakdown in support for the Social Democrats following the 1998 early retirement benefit reform and stayed in office as prime minister until 2001 and party leader until 2002 – at which point he was duly removed from his position by the party’s executive board.
But what about Helle Thorning-Schmidt? After all, this is 2013 and the Social Democrats are in the doldrums according to all opinion polls. Let us begin by applying Gunnar Sjöblom’s four strategic goals for parties in multi-party systems:
1. Parliamentary power
Thorning did finally succeed in returning the Social Democrats to government in 2011 after a decade in opposition. We should also note that strategically and tactically she has been sufficiently flexible to create alliances with first SF and then the Social Liberals, depending on which parties were necessary to strengthen the Social Democrats in parliament. On the other hand, the strategic flexibility has also led to a blurred image of the party’s position and – see 2. – we can question if the Social Democrats are able to set the political agenda.
2. Programme realisation
Here, the problems begin. We could interpret Thorning-Schmidt’s political project as an attempt to reconcile the dominant neoclassical economic discourse with the traditional Social Democratic focus on full employment. These traditions do not merge easily and the addition of the Social Liberals and the – self-inflicted – need to comply with the rules of the EMU to the equation has put Thorning-Schmidt and the Social Democrats in an almost impossible position. Add the defeat with regard to the cuts in the unemployment insurance programme and the government begins to look severely ineffective in policy terms.
A number of minor mishaps – the proposed and then abandoned congestion charge for Copenhagen – only added to the sense of a government and a prime minister which was not in control of the political agenda.
3. Vote maximation
This is where the real pain begins. At the national level, the Social Democrats recorded their last win in 1998 – that will be fifteen years ago this March – and the 2007 and 2011 elections have been disappointments to the party. To add insult to injury, the already bad result of the 2011 election has been followed by a weak performance in opinion polls with the party winning around or below 20 percent of the vote.
The Danish party system of the early 21st Century is very different from that of the second half of the 20th, but the Social Democrats have a major, chronic problem in attracting voters as at the present state of affairs, some 10 MPs are looking forward to losing their seats.
On the local level, the 2005 and 2009 elections were less disastrous but there are a number of Social Democratic councilors and mayors who are anxiously awaiting the local elections this November. Again, there is a real risk of a bloodbath in the local and regional councils with the Liberals as the big winner.
4. Party cohesion
Here, the problem so far has less been cohesion in the parliamentary group and the party leadership and more attacks from people at the local level and trade union leaders. The local-national and party-trade union divisions are of a somewhat different nature than an open split at the national level. Still, the collapse of the three-partite negotiations last summer and the fate of the congestion charge suggest that forces within the party and the labour movement are happy to block initiatives from the national leadership. Obviously, local branches or trade unions cannot challenge Thorning-Schmidt directly – even if the Swedish Social Democrats out of pure desperation chose a union leader as party chairman – and conflicts between party and trade unions are nothing new.
So, where are we now?
The present government is a weak one and the Social Democrats have major problems with attracting voters, something which is likely to lead to major losses among Social Democratic councilors this November, but how big a role does Thorning-Schmidt’s leadership play in the malaise and would a new leader be able to reach better results?
The centre-left faces big problems in all of Europe despite the present state of the economy and Social Democratic parties have only been able to challenge the centre-right when they came out of opposition – see: France and (according to opinion polls) Great Britain while the German Social Democrats are a continuing disaster story. Even the once-mighty Swedish Social Democrats are in many ways a shadow of their former self. This suggests that we are dealing with issues that go deeper than just bad leadership.
On the other hand, it is easier to replace the leader than to substantially revise the party’s programme and strategies, but the selection of possible challengers is less than impressive. Mette Frederiksen is usually mentioned as a successor but is still young, Bjarne Corydon the technocrat’s technocrat (even if he unlike his SF counterpart Thor Möger Pedersen made a strong performance at the 2011 election and managed to get elected to the Folketing) and Nicolai Wammen is doubtlessly willing but his public image has faded during his term as Minister for European Affairs.
Finally, there is the question when a challenge could be mounted. Even if a week may be a long time in politics, the chances of improving the party’s fortunes before the local elections are slim. If this parliamentary term continues until 2015, Thorning-Schmidt could make herself European Commissioner during the second half of 2014 – she would have been party chairman for almost ten years by then – and clear the way of a successor but here we enter the realm of speculations.
So, to conclude, despite her and the Social Democrats’ obvious weaknesses I would think it more likely than not that Helle Thorning-Schmidt will be leading her party in the next election and my guess is that it will come in late 2014 or early 2015.