By Christoffer Hentzer Dausgaard (University of Copenhagen)
When the exit polls came in at 8pm, they confirmed an expected result from weeks of campaign polling: one in which neither the ‘red bloc’ of left-of-centre parties nor the ‘blue bloc’ of right-of-centre parties would be able to command a majority on its own without the support from the brand new centrist party, the Moderates, led by former prime minister and party leader of the centre-right Liberals, Lars Løkke Rasmussen. Rasmussen resigned as leader of the Liberals in 2019 and founded the Moderates five months ago. Refusing to support any of the prime ministerial candidates, he had the explicit goal of occupying a kingmaker position after the election from which he could force a broad coalition government across the centre. This would be the first such government since 1979. Moreover, it would be a spectacular return of Rasmussen, not just to Danish politics but maybe even to the prime ministerial office. For the past couple of weeks Rasmussen’s plan has seemed to work.
As the results ticked in, however, results changed just enough for the red bloc to end up getting a slim 1-seat majority, fuelled by unexpectedly strong support for the Social Democrats. The Moderates indeed managed to get an astonishing 9,3% of the votes and became the third largest party in parliament but crucially, the Social Democrats do not depend on their seats to stay in power. With this result, the social democratic Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, gets the first chance to form a government and will have the upper hand in negotiations. It is now all but certain that she will lead the next government.
This piece will highlight three main takeaways from the election result: historical electoral fragmentation, political upheaval on the right and victory for the Social Democrats.
Historical electoral fragmentation
Firstly, this election is the most fragmented in Danish history. Out of the 14 parties on the ballot, 12 parties have passed the electoral threshold, many of them comfortably. This is the highest number of parties in parliament ever and represents an effective number of parties of around 8, which is nearly at the level of Israel and the Netherlands [calculation by Frederik Hjorth]. Moreover, the third and fifth largest parties in the new parliament – Rasmussen’s Moderates (9,3%) and the right-wing populist Denmark Democrats (8,1%) – did not even exist half a year ago. Notably, this fragmentation has occurred primarily within the blue bloc.
In addition, the electorate has been more volatile than usual. Danish voters generally display rather low party loyalty and tend to decide their vote very late. Yet, this election saw massive voter volatility between parties as well as blocs during the five-week campaign even for Danish standards. The number of voters deciding their vote in the very last days of the campaign hit a record high of 40% in the 2019 election and there are indications that it has been even higher in this election. Possibly reflecting this widespread doubt among voters, turnout followed the declining Danish trend and hit a new low at 84,2% (its lowest point since 1990).
Political upheaval on the right
Secondly, the result is a significant blow to the three most powerful parties on the right in past decades – the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party and the two traditional parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives – and as a result the blue bloc is fundamentally transformed. After the 2019 election where the Liberals replaced Lars Løkke Rasmussen with their current leader, Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, internal divisions grew within the party and several high-profile members left. Some of these joined the Conservatives while others started new parties. In addition to Rasmussen founding the Moderates, the highly popular (albeit controversial) former minister for immigration and integration, Inger Støjberg, founded the populist Denmark Democrats in June 2022 after serving her 2-month sentence for issuing an illegal order to separate certain married couples at asylum centres. What was one party in 2019 is now three.
It was therefore expected when the Liberals got their worst result since 1988 with just 13,3% of the vote, down from 23,4% in the 2019 election. As a member of the Liberals dryly noted, the ‘old’ Liberals would have received almost one third of the votes with this result (i.e. 13,3% to the Liberals, 9,3% to the Moderates, 8,1% to the Denmark Democrats). Although among the biggest losers of the evening, the Liberals remained strangely dominant in the results. To be sure, they also remain the largest party in the blue bloc with 23 seats (9 more than the two runner-ups, the Denmark Democrats and the Liberal Alliance) and so will retain their informal leadership role in the bloc.
The Conservative decline was smaller but far more surprising. The Conservatives have seen a steady increase in support in polling over the past couple of years. Set to become the largest party in the blue bloc for the first time since 1990, their leader, Søren Pape, announced his bid to become prime minister in competition with the Liberals’ Jakob Ellemann-Jensen. Yet, over the course of the campaign, a combination of scandals, tactical missteps and unpopular policy arguably led to the Conservatives’ collapse in the polls over the course of just a few weeks. The Conservatives peaked at 16% in the polls early September but ended up with only 5.5% of the vote – a decline of 1.1 points from the last election.
Finally, voters almost wiped out the anti-immigrant party, the Danish People’s Party, which passed the 2% electoral threshold with a bare 0.6 percentage points, down from 8,7% of the vote in the last election. Although never in government, the Danish People’s Party has been one of the most powerful parties in Danish politics for 20 years, pushing through the strict immigration regime that is in force today. The fall of the Danish People’s Party has been dramatic; in the 2015 election, they peaked with more than every fifth vote and became the second largest party in parliament after the Social Democrats.
The fate of the Danish People’s Party has several likely causes. Firstly, the once highly centralised party has seen growing fractionalisation, and public leadership infighting has dominated its public presence in recent years. This culminated in a heated leadership election in the beginning of 2022, which led several profiled members to leave the party. Secondly, other parties have effectively accommodated their immigration stance, most notably the Social Democrats under Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. In what was arguably a tactical blunder, then-leader of the Danish People’s Party, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, even signalled an openness to supporting the Social Democrats, thereby validating their rightward shift on immigration. The successful accommodation has enabled the Social Democrats to claw back the bloc of immigration skeptic working class voters, which effectively were the median voters that handed power to the ‘blue bloc’ in the 00’s. The newly emerged right-wing party, Støjberg’s Denmark Democrats, has not only adopted the Danish People’s Party’s immigration agenda but also attracted some of their most prominent politicians. In fact, recent members of the Danish People’s Party made up half of their candidates – and all of their elected politicians.
Victory for the Social Democrats
The third main point concerns the Social Democrats. With 27.5% of the votes, the Social Democrats improved their result from the last election by 1.5 points and got their best result in 20 years with twice as many votes as the second largest party, the Liberals. In the (now ex) prime minister, Mette Frederiksen’s words, the Social Democrats are effectively “the only people’s party in Denmark”. This victory for Frederiksen should not be understated: if she indeed manages to form a new government, this will be the first re-election of a social democratic government in Denmark in 25 years. On a more personal level, Frederiksen increased her number of personal votes by 40% compared to the last election, achieving the third highest number of personal votes for a Danish politician ever (only surpassed by former Prime Minister from the Liberals, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in 2001 and 2005).
This is all the more important in light of the controversy surrounding Frederiksen’s leadership. Her handling of the covid crisis was praised initially, but a scandal regarding an illegal government decision in 2020 to cull all Danish mink at fur farms has led to harsh criticism from the right but also from parties in Frederiksen’s own parliamentary coalition. Frederiksen was forced to call the election early by the Social Liberals after a highly critical report on the mink cull this summer, and her right-wing challengers, Ellemann-Jensen (the Liberals) and Pape (the Conservatives), made her leadership the focus of their campaigns. Whatever one thinks of Frederiksen’s handling of the mink scandal, the fact that the Social Liberal Party, the Liberals and the Conservatives all lost ground while Frederiksen was strengthened – on the party and personal level – is a much-needed sign of confidence in Frederiksen. The Social Liberal Party has been more than halved (from 8,6% to 3,8%) getting their worst result since 1990 – a result that is widely interpreted as a punishment for forcing the election. Their leader has promptly resigned and was just barely re-elected.
Who will govern?
Despite the red bloc majority, negotiations are wide open and could take long. The key question is whether we will get a broad coalition government or a government solely based on the red majority. Either way, the Social Democrats seem all but certain to become a part of it.
There are several reasons why Frederiksen and the Social Democrats do not simply aim for a red government straight away. Firstly, Frederiksen might not be able to build a government on the red majority alone even if she wanted to. Although the Moderates are now unable to force her into a grand coalition, the Social Liberal Party might. They have clearly stated that they refuse to support a one-party government with the Social Democrats and prefer a grand coalition. Despite their decline, the Social Liberal Party now has the median mandate and seems willing to use it. It is highly unlikely that it would support a blue bloc-government without the Social Democrats but it could force Frederiksen to cooperate with parties outside the red bloc. The most likely coalitions across the middle would involve the Social Democrats together with one or two other parties from the red bloc (the Social Liberal Party and/or the moderate left-wing Socialist People’s Party) and the Moderates and/or the Liberals from the blue bloc. Even if forced to cooperate, she has plenty of options and will likely be able to get a good deal.
Secondly, the Social Democrats have pledged their support for a broad coalition since the beginning of the campaign. Even if Frederiksen prefers a red coalition and this was a tactical move, she must be seen to take this option seriously. However, it is not obvious that it was purely tactical. Frederiksen may not necessarily prefer a pure left-wing coalition over a coalition with e.g. Rasmussen’s Moderates or Ellemann-Jensen’s Liberals that excludes the leftmost party, the Red-Green Alliance and/or possibly the Social Liberal Party (with whom she has strong disagreements over especially immigration policy). Indeed, she has recently hinted at a more centrist economic agenda emphasising reforms, tax cuts and strengthening the economy. Although Frederiksen dodged a centrist government at Rasmussen’s mercy on election eve, she may end up choosing one herself.
Photo source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63481675