A centre-left revival? Part II: Denmark

(If you haven’t already done so, it’s a good idea to read part 1, here.)

Still in Scandinavia, Denmark has a new government this week. Three weeks after the parliamentary election held on 5 June, Social Democrat leader Mette Frederiksen was able to announce that she had finalised negotiations for majority support to become prime minister.

This was not unexpected. Left-of-centre parties won a clear majority in the election, with 98 of the 179 seats. Frederiksen, however, will not govern in coalition; it will be a purely Social Democrat government, with commitments from three other parties to give it a parliamentary majority in return for concessions on policy.

So, is this another sign of a comeback by the European centre-left? Well, up to a point.

The Social Democrat vote actually went down slightly, from 26.3% to 25.9%, although they picked up a seat. By contrast, the Liberals, who led the outgoing centre-right government, were up 3.9% and gained nine seats.* (Compare my 2015 report here.)

I said yesterday that it was important to consider both the Greens and the far left in assessing the fortunes of the left as a whole. But that didn’t make much difference in Denmark either. The three parties to the left of the Social Democrats (two rival Greens parties and one far left) were up just 0.8% in aggregate and gained two seats.

What really guaranteed a change of government was the strong performance of the Social Liberal Party, which jumped from 4.6% and eight seats to 8.6% and 16 seats. That almost exactly matched the drop in support for yet another liberal party, the Liberal Alliance, which had been part of the centre-right government and lost 5.2% and nine seats.

Most of the time, at least in proportional systems, it’s going to be impossible for centre-left parties to govern without some centrist support. That doesn’t mean they should give up their principles in order to win it, but it means there’s a strong argument for stressing the principles that they hold in common with the centrists.

The other thing that happened in Denmark was the shift on the right. The far-right Danish People’s Party lost more than half of its vote, falling to a distant third (behind the Social Democrats and Liberals) and losing 21 seats. Even counting two new far-right parties (only one of which reached the 2% threshold), the far right vote was down 8.2%.

About half of that went to the two centre-right parties, the Conservative People’s Party and the Christian Democrats, although the latter still failed to reach the threshold.

Some commentators have credited the decline of the far right to Frederiksen’s relatively hard-line position on immigration. That may well be a factor, although it fails to explain why the Social Democrat vote didn’t improve – and in fact the new government promises to be more liberal on immigration issues, largely as a result of pressure from the Social Liberals.

What seems to have happened is a general shift leftwards within the several parts of the spectrum: centre-right and right-liberals gaining at the expense of the far right, left-liberals gaining at the expense of libertarian liberals, and far left gaining at the expense of Greens.

As I said in part 1, a party system is a dynamic beast. Denmark’s Social Democrats are in power not so much due to their own strength as to the way the overall movement of opinion favored their position. But a win is still a win.


* All of these figures relate to Denmark proper, which has 175 of the 179 seats. There are also two seats each for the Faroe Islands and Greenland, which have different party systems; three of those four MPs are left-of-centre.


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