LivingPolitics & History

The rules of the game; understanding the Danish political system

Are you new to Denmark?  We give you here a brief introduction to how the system works.

 

By Inger Stokkink         Picture:Anders Hviid.

 

Denmark is just your regular western democracy. It has proportional representation, allowing parliament, called Folketinget in Danish, to reflect the various political orientations in Danish society through a multitude of different parties.

The multitude of parties makes co-operation in coalitions between parties a necessity, as no single party has enough seats to rule on its own. This co-operation takes many forms, such as parties declaring before an election whether they are joining the red or the blue block.

But this co-operation really starts to count after the elections, when election promises are tested against political reality, and political parties involved in forming a government have to compromise in order to build up a coalition.

Most Danish governments are minority coalitions, relying on a support party in Folketinget so that most of the government’s political issues are certain of a majority when it comes down to voting.

Form follows function

The way Danish politics are organised influences the political culture just as much as the political outcome. Rune Stubager, professor of political science at Aarhus University, and a frequent commentator in Danish media, helps to clarify this:

“In the proportional system, the electoral threshold defines how many parties there are. And actually, the electoral threshold in Denmark is quite low: two percent of the total number of votes. Also, if you have enough votes in just one storkreds then you also have the right to claim a seat in the Folketing. This explains why there are relatively many parties in Folketinget, and why political parties are destined to work together.”

How to play with the parties

Although it is fairly easy to get elected in Denmark because of the low electoral threshold, there are some hurdles that a new party has to jump in order to get its name on the ballot.

“The first hurdle is that they have to gather around 20,000 voter’s signatures, vetted by their municipalities, the second is that they have to participate in the Folketing election, and that requires some party organisation,” explains Stubager. ”There are two types of new parties: outsider parties and splinter parties. You’ll see that the most successful new parties are the splinter parties, parties that have broken away from other, more established parties, where candidates already have gained political experience.”

Examples of successful splinter parties can be found in Dansk Folkeparti and the 2015 newcomer Alternativet. Rune explains their background and party culture:

Dansk Folkeparti is such as splinter party from the former Fremskridtsparti. It is a party that has a strong party discipline, a well-oiled party organisation, and a party leadership that is very top-down oriented, leaving little influence for individual party members. Their party meetings are more about reinforcing the party’s own viewpoints and having a good time, than about internal political discussions and forming a political statement on basis of such a discussion.”

Alternativet, the new party that became member of parliament after the 2015 election, is mostly an outsider party. Yes, they have an experienced Folketing member, Uffe Albæk, but the others are new. And they have ambitions to change the way to do politics. That seems naive, but if they find enough supporters, who think that the political scene needs a more idealistic approach, then something might happen. But I find it hard to see how they can break the inner logic of politics right now,” he says about the challenges new parties such as Alternativet face.

Forlig and fællesskab

Two words you hear a lot in Danish politics are forlig, political pacts between parties, and fællesskab, community feeling and cooperation.

For those who haven’t grown up with these words, Christine Cordsen, former political commentator for Jyllands Posten, currently working for DR, says about their importance and how they shape this very Danish political culture:

“I think that what makes Danish political culture special is that it is shaped by a deeply-ingrained tendency to co-operate, also across party lines. This has been going on for about a hundred years, and it has to do with Denmark having mostly had minority governments. So there was a direct need to co-operate to make things work. An effect of this attitude is the comparative stability of Danish politics. 

Another sign of this is the forligskultur: picking out controversial issues, for example the school system and making a pact with a large majority in Folketinget that transcends party lines and time horizons, a pact that even the next Folketing election cannot easily undo. These pacts are binding and contracting parties have a veto right, so it cannot be undone lightly.”

“But it shows in a different way, too. There’s a strong sense of fællesskab among Folketing members, a strong sense of collegiality and even long-standing friendships across party lines,” says Christine Cordsen about the political culture at parliament.

Udlændingepolitik – immigration policy

There are three themes that keep on coming back in the present political debate: the national economy, especially economic growth, and the growth of the public sector; welfare state topics such as health, education and taking care of the elderly.

Finally, there is ‘udlændingepolitik’, which translates literally as ‘foreigner policy’ but is more correctly described as immigration policy.

“Opinion polls show that a majority of Danes wish to have a strict immigration policy, or at least that the present rules will not be softened up,” says Christine Cordsen. And she adds that:  “Immigration politics, and the way these are discussed, have gradually changed over the last twenty years. Things that were outrageous to say back then are quite normal now.

Dansk Folkeparti, which has immigration policy as one of its big themes, had considerable direct power as a support party for the right-wing coalition led by Anders Fogh Rasmussen from 2001 until 2009. But they also had considerable indirect power, because they set the agenda by opposing immigrants, and especially non-western immigrants, but also in the way they talked about immigrants.”

“Even the social democrats, Socialdemokraterne, now favour fairly strict rules concerning immigration, and this has met no great internal opposition, unlike before. Now Venstre, instead of Socialdemokraterne, has heated internal debates about immigrants and the way they are treated in Denmark. In that sense you could say that the “middle” has moved to the right,” she says explaining the evolution.

“The tone of the debate and the way immigrants are being talked about splits Venstre’s party members. On the one hand, they think it is problematic that there are immigrants and refugees who, after considerable time spent in Denmark, still have difficulty speaking Danish, still have not found work, and keep to themselves instead of reaching out to Danish society. And this affects their children’s careers in school, too. 

On the other hand, there are many Danes and Danish companies, who want to attract labour forces from abroad for various reasons. If the tone towards immigrants becomes too harsh, this might scare immigrants away, which is not what they want.

So Venstre has suggested making different sets of rules for different types of immigrants: on the one hand favourable rules for immigrants who are highly educated and are expected to contribute positively to Danish society. And, on the other, a strict set of rules for immigrants, mostly refugees and/or non-western, who are not very highly educated. But this is problematic on another level. The idea of dividing people up, and treating them differently, goes directly against a deeply-felt passion for equality, which is seen as a very Danish value.”

Left is right!

Are you puzzled about why the right-wing party Venstre is called venstre, which means ‘left’ in Danish. Here is the rather simple – even if strange – explanation.

“It has to do with the representatives in the French National Assembly, right after the French Revolution,”  Rune Stubager explains. “The representatives, who were most reform-minded and against privilege, in other words classical-liberal, were seated to the left.

The Danish representatives who followed this way of thinking, took over the word ‘left’ to signify their reformist, liberal outlook, in Danish venstre. They were the first to form a political party, and kept the name Venstre. Later on, when the social-democrats entered the political scene, and the political scale, so to say, was stretched to the left, Venstre was no longer left-wing. But the name stuck anyway.”

Minority government of Venstre

The status of the last elections held in June 2015  gave the right wing parties (the blue) a majority in the form of a coalition of the four blue parties Venstre, Konservative, Liberal Alliance and Dansk Folkeparti.

However, as they were not able to agree on forming a joint government, and Dansk Folkeparti eventually decided not to be part of the government by seeking ministerial positions, eventually Lars Løkke Rasmussen formed first a minority government only of Venstre.

However this was subsequently amended a couple of times and today (October 2017),  he leads a government consisting of Venstre, Konservative and Liberal Alliance. The three parties are still in minority, as they do not hold 90 mandates together.

This means that Lars Løkke Rasmussen has to seek the majority of 90 mandates (to get 50 percent of the 179 Folketing seats) for all the policy decisions he wants to pass through Folketinget.

He can seek them among ALL the other parties of Folketinget.

He does not have to seek only right wing votes but can also opt for a broad coalition together with the left wing parties such as Socialdemokraterne or Radikale Venstre.

In the recent car tax reform the majority was achieved through a deal made with Dansk Folkeparti – which vastly amended what Venstre wanted to do, as a deal was only possible through concessions given on both sides.

Key words in Danish politics

  • Folketinget: is the name of Denmark’s parliament. It resides in Christiansborg, which is also lovingly known as ‘Borgen’, a palace on a little island in Copenhagen.
  • Mandat (mandater): seat(s) in Parliament.
  • Blok (blå blok/ rød blok): these are established coalitions of parties. The ‘blå blok‘ (blue block), also known as ‘de borgerlige‘ (the ‘bourgeois’), are liberals, conservatives and other right-wing parties. The ‘rød blok‘ (red block) are social democrats, liberal democrats and other left-wing parties. Each block supports a candidate for the position as statsminister (prime minister).
  • Forlig: this is a pact between a majority of parties, which in practice means parties from both the ‘rød’ and the ‘blå’ blok. In this pact parties agree to policy guidelines and laws concerning systemic change in big issues such as education, health, and even constitutional matters.
  • Dronningerunde (Queen’s round): this refers to the consultation of all party leaders by the Queen, directly after the outcome of elections. After the Dronningerunde, the Queen appoints usually one of the two statsminister candidates to form a government.
  • Kaffeklub: ‘the coffee club’. Informal meetings of factions within political parties themselves, where party policy is ‘pre-cooked’.