Denmark will go to the polls on 1 November, seven months ahead of schedule. Social Democrat prime minister Mette Frederiksen announced the election on Wednesday to head off a threatened vote of no confidence arising from the 2020 mink cull.
Yes, you read that correctly. Mink, farmed for their fur, are big business in Denmark – or at least they were, until a new coronavirus mutation was discovered in some mink herds. Concerned about the risks to human health, the government panicked and ordered the killing of all the country’s mink, some 15 million animals. A subsequent inquiry found that the cull lacked any legal justification.
Although the findings did not accuse Frederiksen of deliberately acting illegally, they badly tarnished the government’s image. And one of the parties comprising its majority, the Social Liberals, promised to withdraw its support if an election was not called. The prime minister resisted for a time, arguing (not implausibly) that unity was needed in dangerous times, but ultimately had to give in.
You can read my report on the 2019 election here. Basically it was fought between two loose alliances of parties; those generally left of centre won 52.0% of the vote and 99 seats, against 43.1% and 80 seats for those generally right of centre. (Three small parties on the right failed to reach the 2% threshold; including them would bring the right’s total up to 47.4%.)
Each side covered considerable ideological breadth. Those supporting Frederiksen included, in addition to the centre-left and the Social Liberals (left-liberal), two rival Green parties and the far left, plus both Greenland MPs and one of the two Faroe Islanders. The right covered the centre-right, two far-right parties, two right-liberal parties and the other Faroe Islander.
Recent opinion polls show all of the existing parties poised to make it back, with the exception of Alternative, one of the Green parties. There are also two new parties. On the far right are the Denmark Democrats, whose name is an attempt to copy the success of the Sweden Democrats: they are currently sitting in fourth place, on about 10% (behind the Social Democrats, the right-liberal Liberals and the centre-right Conservatives), having cannibalised most of the support of the Danish People’s Party.
The other new party is the Moderates, a centrist party led by Lars Løkke Rasmussen, a former Liberal prime minister. Unlike the Liberals, who now seem anchored on the right (although their name, Venstre, actually means “Left”), Rasmussen refuses to commit to either side, and with maybe three or four per cent of the vote hopes to hold the balance of power between them.
Since the two seem evenly balanced, with a movement of a few points in total towards the right since last time, that is a distinct possibility. It may result in a government that depends on the more centrist forces on both sides, excluding the extremes, although no doubt that will not happen without a protracted bargaining period. It’s also possible that neighboring Sweden, whose election four weeks ago is yet to produce a new government, will feel its way towards a similar outcome.
In that context, it’s worth reading an analysis this week by Barbara Moens and Cornelius Hirsch at Politico, who argue that the current apparent rise of the European far right is more about growing acceptance by mainstream parties than about improved electoral performance. They note that “the results indicate that if an increase in support occurred for far-right parties, it happened several years ago.”
What’s changed, it seems, is respectability: centre-right parties have mostly stopped trying to maintain a cordon sanitaire, just as the far-right parties themselves have deliberately oriented more towards the centre. As Moens and Hirsch put it, “By carefully catering to centrist voters, the far-right aims for a bigger slice of the cake, while still riding on the anti-establishment discontent.”
The jury is still out on how much the changes are cosmetic or substantive, and on whether far-right parties can compromise with the establishment while maintaining their electoral support. But it’s likely that Denmark next month will provide us with a new data point.