Denmark swings rightwards

Denmark voted yesterday (Thursday) in an election held about three months before the fourth anniversary of the last election – which may or may not count as an “early election”, depending on how you look at it. Social Democrat prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt has never enjoyed an entirely reliable parliamentary majority, and it looks as if she took the chance of going sooner rather than later without it being early enough to look panicky.

With results mostly complete, the election has demonstrated a number of themes that are already familiar from European elections over the last year or so:

  • A general drift from left to right, or at least an underperformance by the left relative to what the opinion polls had been saying.
  • A shift towards new and/or extremist parties and against the established parties, particularly those of the centre.
  • Anti-immigrant sentiment as a major electoral force, both in driving support for anti-immigrant parties and in pushing other parties toward adopting their policies.

Denmark has very much a multi-party system, with eight parties represented in the outgoing parliament and nine in the new (plus four parties from Greenland or the Faroe Islands, each with one seat). But it functions a lot like a two-party system, with each party readily assignable to one of two very evenly matched alliances – one led by the Social Democrats (the red alliance) and the other, at least until now, by the Liberals (the blue alliance).

You can read my report on the 2011 election here. Basically there was a very small swing from blue to red, which was enough to give the red alliance a narrow majority even though the Social Democrats had lost ground. Three parties (Social Democrats, Social Liberals and Socialists) formed a centre-left coalition, supported also by the Red-Greens and three of the four Faroese and Greenlanders.

This year it’s just as close. My rather unreliable Irish internet connection can’t get Danish TV, but going by the figures given on the Guardian’s live blog, the blues are going to finish with about 52% of the vote and a total of 90 or 91 seats against 88 or 89 for the reds.

But the big news is that first place within the blue alliance – and therefore potentially the prime ministership – has gone to the far-right Danish People’s Party, whose vote jumped from 12.3% to 21.2%: 1.7% ahead of the Liberals (who lost 7.2%) and second only to the Social Democrats, whose 26.4% represented a gain of 1.6% despite losing the election.

In reality, the Danish People’s Party is unlikely to press its claims to lead the new government. It knows that may be a bridge too far both for its allies and for the Danish public; better to put the Liberals in office and support them either from outside (as in the last Liberal government, from 2001 to 2011) or as coalition partners (as a very similar party, the True Finns, have done this year in Finland).

And just as the switch four years ago from blue to red seemed to produce very little policy change, with the Social Democrats combining liberal economics with tough rhetoric on immigration, it’s unlikely that yesterday’s result will signal a major shift. Consensus is too much of a habit, and the Danish centre, despite its losses, is still strong: three liberal parties (two with the blues and one with the reds) have almost a third of the vote between them.

Nor is the Danish People’s Party in the same league as, say, the French National Front: it is nationalist and anti-immigrant but not neo-fascist. And although they have accepted the far right’s support before, the Liberals can be pushed only so far in a populist or Eurosceptic direction before they might have second thoughts.

That’s the difference between a real two-party system and something that only looks like one: parties retain the option of switching sides, and a Liberal-Social Democrat combination would be a formidable force.

Possible updates to come as results are finalised.


**UPDATE 7pm Friday, Danish time**

Official results are now available here, although the main table needs to be supplemented with figures from Greenland and the Faroes. The total is a one-seat majority for the centre-right “blue” alliance, 90 to 89. A lot of the media coverage still says 90 to 85, omitting the fact that the centre-left swept all four Greenland and Faroe seats.

In Denmark proper, voting was 52.2% (up 2.4%) for the blues and 47.7% for the reds. Turnout was a very healthy 85.8%, down slightly on 2011. Danish TV has lots of interesting graphics.

I’ve got a post up today that touches on the implications for the EU, but it’s interesting to note that the centre-left, the more pro-EU side, only got as close as it did courtesy of the Greenlanders and Faroese – who are not themselves EU members.


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