Guest post: Denmark

January 23, 2011 § 5 Comments

I know it’s a little out of the alphabetical order but Chris Terry of Britain votes has very kindly written the following so I thought I might as well put it up straight away – no sense in waiting. It’s a complicated issue, as British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston said: “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.” All following words are Chris’, all pictures are mine.

Who lives there?: About 5.5 million people. Historically Denmark has been very homogenous, in common with the rest of the Nordic region, but these days about 10% of the population is either immigrant or directly descendant from immigrants. The majority of these (estimated at 54%) are other Scandinavians, but other minorities are significant. 2.7% of the population is Muslim.

Otherwise the population is largely homogenous. More than 80% are members of the (Lutheran) state church, though church attendance is very low, and pretty much everyone speaks Danish.

The border with Germany is vaguely porous and has traditionally been the subject of much discussion and debate across the years. The Northern German Länd of Schleswig-Holstein was historically part of Denmark. The border was only settled in 1920 when a series of referenda took place. Schleswig-Holstein was divided into three regions – North, Central and South which were to vote on which side to take. North voted for Denmark by 75%, Central then voted for Germany by 80%. The issue of South Schleswig now being obvious, it was decided to simply bring that region into Germany. Small minorities still exist on both sides and in the Schlewsig-Holstein Länd Parliament 2 seats are currently held by the South Schlewsig Voter Federation, which is a Danish minority party. It only received 4.3% of the vote in the last election however (fortunately for it, there is a special allowance in Schleswig’s electoral law so that the 5% threshold does not apply to it).

How does the system work? (the theory): Denmark is a constitutional monarchy. The monarch’s is mostly powerless save for after an election, when the chairmen and women of the political parties gather at a ‘Queen’s meeting’ that she heads to negotiate who will rule. Officially the Queen is head of government, but in reality her powers are exercised by the cabinet and the Prime Minister.

Denmark has a parliamentary system of government and a unicameral parliament, the Folketing (which translates into English quite nicely as the ‘People’s Thing’). For elections Denmark uses a form of open-list proportional representation. Denmark is divided into ten multi-member constituencies which are then elected by a slightly modified form of the Saint-Laguë method. 135 seats are elected in this way. 40 seats are then assigned as compensatory seats also using Saint-Laguë. The threshold for representation in these seats is just 2% nationally. There are then four additional seats elected by the Danish territories of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, each territory elects two MPs, with, in practice, the top two parties in each territory gaining a seat. There was once an upper house, the Rigsdag, but it was abolished in 1953.

This is a highly proportional system, and as such it is relatively easy to gain entry to the Folketing. The 1973 election is known as the ‘Landslide election’ because five extra-parliamentary parties entered the legislature at once.

In common with other Nordic democracies the Danes have negative parliamentarism. That is say that whereas in most parliamentary democracies a government stays in power because the legislature consistently votes in favour of it. In Denmark however the question is not whether you are for the government, but whether you are against it. This means that minority governments are very common as parties can argue that while they do not like the current government they are willing to tolerate it. Danish politics has traditionally been dominated by shifting issue-to-issue coalitions as minority governments debate bills on a bill by bill basis. This means that as long as a party can clear the 2% threshold it can still be rather influential, and Denmark undoubtedly has one of the most powerful legislatures in Europe. Recently however, as we shall explore later, Danish politics has somewhat polarised of late; though much of this still remains accurate.

Due to the pressures of globalisation and the need to reform public services local government in Denmark has become very powerful. Denmark is divided into five regions, and 98 municipalities (or communes). Municipalities have responsibility for utilities (including heating, electricity and water supply) and may organise them however they like (municipality run companies for instance, or a total free market). Municipalities also run day care services, are partially responsible for healthcare and have major powers in many other areas. The regions hold the chief responsibility for healthcare in Denmark and are responsible for public transport and employment policy. This set up dates from 2007. Previously there had been 15 counties and 270 municipalities. However the extraordinary power of so many local government structures led to issues of duplication, poor management, and inefficiency, so the new structures were designed to streamline the whole process. Notably, however, this was not simply a centralisation of power as many county powers were passed down to the new larger municipalities. Nonetheless, for a supposedly unitary state of 5.5 million people Denmark demonstrates a shocking amount of decentralisation of power.

Referenda are also fairly common, being used for constitutional issues. Amending the constitution is difficult – requiring a majority in two consecutive parliaments and then a referendum where 40% of all registered voters must vote in favour. The most recent amendment was in 2009, and changed the line of succession in the royal family from male-preference priomogeniture to equal priomogeniture. The constitution also includes a confusing section that basically states that seceding of national sovereignty must be approved by parliament and/or referendum. Traditionally this has been held to mean EU treaties require referenda, but Parliament passed the Lisbon Treaty without one. As such there is currently a court case making its way through the Supreme Court regarding whether a referendum was required.

Turnout in Denmark is always high. At the most recent election (2007) it hit 86.5%.

How does the system work? (the practice): Denmark is a model democracy. In fact, according to Transparency International Denmark ranks as the joint least corrupt country on Earth and according to the Economist’s Index of Democracy only Iceland and Norway are more democratic.

How did we get here?: The first references to the Danes date from Anglo-Saxon England. The Jelling Stones in the town of Jelling are massive runestones (each taller than a person) that record the early history of Denmark. They include references to the transition from paganism to christianity and the concurrent unification of Denmark by Harald Bluetooth. The most infamous part of Danish history: the Vikings also dates from this era. For most of its history the Nordic region has shifted political and personal boundaries however. At times (Kalmar Union for example) the entire region has been theoretically united. At others it has not. Isolated in the North, the majority of Nordic history is the relationships between Nordics and the countries who have been to war the most in world history are in fact Denmark and Sweden. As the most Southern and urbanised of the Nordic Kingdoms Denmark was also one of the most powerful, and Norway was largely under its control until 1814 when it was forced, due to its presence on the losing side in the Napoleonic Wars, to cede Norway to Sweden (Norway would not become independent until 1905).

During World War 2 the country was forced into a collaborationist policy with Germany, a great source of guilt to this day. To be fair to the Danes however, sharing a land border with Germany meant the country would have been easily overrun in an invasion. During World War II its other possession – Iceland, declared independence as well.

During the 19th century upswing in nationalism there was a strong tension amongst Nordics over what sort of nation-state to create. Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible and are, linguistically speaking, dialects of the same language rather than separate languages, the old adage of ‘a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy’ applies here. Finnish is not only not part of the same language, but is actually one of the few languages in Europe that is not even Indo-European, being a Finno-Ugric language. In any case Finland was at that point part of the Russian Empire (Finland has historically tended to pass between Russian and Swedish control, not unlike Norway). Due to the bonds of history, culture and language, therefore, in some quarters it was argued for the creation of a ‘Scandinavian’ nation-state. Technically ‘Scandinavia’ should only apply to Norway, Sweden and Denmark therefore, whereas ‘Nordic’ also includes Iceland and Finland, however the term is commonly held to include Finland too. In any case historical folk memories of dominance by Denmark, and to a lesser extent Sweden, caused the formation of seperate nation-states instead, however a strong Scandinavian and Nordic identity remains and they are all members of the ‘Nordic Council’, which has largely been superseded by the EU.

Who’s in charge?: A quick note first. The Danish electoral law assigns each party a letter to be identified by on the ballot paper. These are then commonly used as an abbreviation for the party, even if the party’s name has no relation whatsoever to the party. To avoid confusion I won’t be using many abbreviations, but to help any future research on your part I will mention the letter used.

The current monarch (since 1972) is Queen Margrethe II. The first Queen of Denmark since Queen Margrethe I, who united the Kalmar Union and was Queen of Denmark from 1375 until 1412. A famed chain smoker, the Queen is also noted for her artistic sensibilities. It is said that if the Queen were not the monarch she could be a professional artist.

Traditionally Denmark, as in the rest of Scandinavia, has been dominated by Social Democracy. Denmark has some of the highest taxes in the world (last I heard it was the highest, but the government has just cut taxes so Sweden may be higher again now). Historically the Nordics did not have serfdom, and as such their peasants came to be comparatively well educated and well off. This resulted in a surprising involvement in the political process for both farmers and labour groups, and with the rise of democracy led to the formation of the two great Nordic political ideologies – Social Democracy and the Nordic Agrarians. The Danish Social Democrats (A) were historically more urban than their Nordic cousins and Denmark, due to location, has typically had to tie itself more into European economic principles. From 1924 until 2001 the Social Democrats were the largest party in the Folketing. Its shock loss of this position in 2001 has mainly put down to tensions over immigration. The Social Democrats are currently led Helle Thorning-Schmidt, its first female leader. A former MEP Helle was elected as the most likely to lead the Social Democrats back to victory. Notably, for British readers, her husband is Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil Kinnock, former Labour Party leader and leader of the opposition. Stephen embroiled her in a financial scandal last year over questions over his tax status. The party won 45 seats at the 2007 election.

The current largest party and party of the Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen is known in Danish as Venstre (V). Venstre was founded in 1870 from an alliance of rural Nordic agrarians and urban liberals. The party has since become primarily a right-wing liberal party which makes it somewhat confusing that the party’s name is ‘Left’ in Danish. This is due to the interweaving histories of liberalism and socialism. The party is often translated as ‘The Danish Liberal Party’. Under its previous leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen (It should be noted that Danish surnames began as patronyms, and all end in –sen, making them rather confusing. This also means there is a shortage of surnames and so the last three PMs have all had the surname ‘Rasmussen’, despite none of them being related. As such it is standard to refer to them by their middle names) went down a radical free-market path for a while, but after two heavy electoral defeats in the 1990s Fogh declared he no longer believed in liberalism and declared he was inspired by Tony Blair’s third way. Fogh thus sought to reassure voters by moving to the centre ground, and actually promising to raise health and welfare spending. With the welfare issue thus neutralised Venstre’s moderately anti-immigration position propelled it past the Social Democrats and to victory. They have been governing Denmark like this since 2001. The party won 46 seats in 2007.

They govern in a minority government in coalition with the Conservation People’s Party (K). Founded in 1915, the Conservatives are Denmark’s other major historic centre-right party. The Conservatives and Venstre have an interesting relationship as they are not only allies but also compete to be the largest centre-right party, with the Conservatives being larger in the 1980s, and providing the then PM. The Conservatives, like other Scandinavian conservative parties, are more radically free-market than most centre-right parties in Europe, and has a strongly economically liberal slant. The party, for example, advocates a flat tax (albeit, this being high tax Denmark, at 50%). The party won 18 seats in 2007. The party is current in crisis, freefalling in the polls and just changed their leader on the 15th of January this year.

The final member of Denmark’s quartet of historic parties is det Radikale Venstre (B). A literal translation is ‘The Radical Left’, but it is often translated into English as ‘the Social Liberals’ or ‘the Radicals’. I prefer the latter. The party was created by a split from Venstre in 1905, from urban middle class liberals, generally in the intelligentsia. As the party name suggests it followed the philosophy of radicalism. Today the party is a Social Liberal party, mixing progressive social views with centrist economic policy. After World War II it came to be a part of a bloc of centrist parties also including the Christian Democrats and the Centre Democrats who would switch support between the Social Democrats and Venstre/Conservative coalitions, in this way they were an important ingredient in Denmark’s shifting coalitions of bill by bill negotiation. However in 2001 the other centrist parties lost their seats and the Radicals came to adopt a left-leaning strategy due to their opposition to government immigration policy (indeed, the Radicals are more pro-immigration than the Social Democrats, who are often confused on the subject. The Radicals are passionately pro-immigration and pro-multiculturalism). The party won 9 seats in 2007.

These four parties have historically formed the core of the Danish party system, with other parties being more transcient.

In 1973 a new party entered Parliament, the Progress Party. Founded by an eccentric lawyer, Mogens Glistrup, who created outrage by demonstrating on national TV that he paid 0% tax. The Progress Party began as his personal anti-tax party, advocating extreme economic liberalism. Becoming the second largest party in the 1973 ‘landslide election’, Progress came to be a permanent fixture, however it shifted its message. Its voters came to be working class protest voters, and as such the party began to support ‘welfare chauvinism’ that is to say that it supported the welfare state as long as the money did not go to the ‘undeserving’ – at first ‘scroungers’, later on, immigrants. (I have often thought of the development of the American Tea Party as rather like an American Progress Party sped up a lot). During the 1990s the party split between its more ideological wing, led by Glistrup, and its ‘pragmatic’ wing led by Pia Kjærsgaard. The party split and Kjærsgaard formed the Danish People’s Party (O), which she leads to this day. Despite being formed by the ‘pragmatic wing’ of the party it has in fact become much more anti-immigration than the Progress Party, vigorously campaigning against Islam. The party supports the minority Venstre/Conservative governmentfrom the outside, and with the lack of centrists has become quite influential. Denmark is often described as having the most restrictive immigration policies in the EU, and the People’s Party is to blame. Negotiations on most things are now between the government and the People’s Party. Combined with its anti-immigration stance the party also has gains popularity from its mixture of ‘social’ economic policies and its eurosceptism. The growth of the People’s Party is a particular bane for the Social Democrats. Research by the Danish Trade Union Confederation, LO, indicates that the party enjoys the support of 30% of unskilled labourers, as opposed to 25% of unskilled labourers who prefer the Social Democrats. The party has taken a hit to its reputation of late as it supported the ‘anti-social’ austerity budget of the current government. The party won 25 seats at the last election, making it the third biggest party.

Also de facto supporting the government is the Liberal Alliance (I), Denmark’s newest party. Formed in 2007 as the New Alliance by Naser Khader, a Syrian-born Muslim, the party was a splinter from the Radicals. Khader, a right-leaning moderate Muslim who became famous in Denmark during the Danish cartoon controversy as the leader of ‘Moderate Muslims’. An opponent of Radical’s left-leaning opposition strategy, Khader’s hope was to create a new centrist party upon which the government could rely to pass legislation, thereby reducing the power of the Danish People’s Party. Unfortunately there was a vital flaw in this plan. Firstly the party lacked a proper ideological footing and while it exploded into popularity (polling in third), its support came from all over the spectrum. Secondly in order to eliminate the need for DF from the centre-right altogether New Alliance would have to take far more popularity from the left than the right, which it was always going to fail to do. After the initial hype the New Alliance won just 5 seats in 2007, and then began slide in the polls towards irrelevance. In the end Khader left his own party, and he is now the immigration spokesman of the Conservatives. With Khader leaving the party engaged in a huge rebranding exercise, becoming the Liberal Alliance, and becoming a classical liberal, some would even say vaguely libertarian party. With the last election producing a majority of 1 for the right (if you don’t count the Liberal Alliance), and defections being what they are, the Liberal Alliance has come to be vital for government policy making and has demanded tax cuts and neoliberal policies for its support. In doing so the Liberal Alliance has increased its support to almost 10% in opinion polls and is the only right-wing party currently polling encouragingly. The party has tapped into something – young professionals who have culturally liberal views but who also support a smaller state, lower taxes and free markets.

Also in the opposition is the Socialist People’s Party (F). Founded by Aksel Larsen, a former Communist leader in 1959, SF adopted ‘Popular Socialism’ as its ideology, a uniquely Scandinavian form of Democratic Socialism. Under its current leader, Villy Søvndal, the party has moved to the centre, and exploded in popularity. Søvndal has strongly criticised Islamist groups, gaining praise from the right, and even supported the government’s 2008 budget. The party more than doubled its seats to 23 in 2007, beating the Conservatives into fourth. The party has been polling less encouragingly of late, however, suggesting that perhaps its popularity has been short-lived.

The final and smallest Danish party in the Folketing is the Red-Green Unity List (ø). The Unity-List is an alliance of several, mostly Communist, far-left parties, factions and groups. Holding just 4 seats at 2.2% it came very close to being eliminated from parliament altogether in 2007.

Finally there are the four MPs from the Faroes and Greenland. Of these three are from left-leaning parties, and one is right-leaning.

Dane parties

In addition to political parties it should be noted that Scandinavia in general is known for a certain politics of the interest group. Denmark has one of the highest rates of interest group participation on Earth, and this creates a strong and lively civil society. More than 80% of the population are members of a Trade Union, and other groups are also very popular and powerful.

What does it look like?: Denmark is a unification of the Jutland Peninsula, and a series of Islands (1,419 of them with more than 100 square metres in area). Copenhagen is actually spread across two closely neighbouring islands, Zealand and Amager. There is a bridge from Zealand to Sweden. Otherwise the country is very very flat, averaging 31 metres above sea level and the country’s highest point is at the giddy height of 171 metres. This flatness may be the result of a recent theory that Denmark is formed by the sediment from Norwegian rivers. 60% of the land is arable, 10% is forested and most of the rest is urban. More than a third of the country lives inside the Copenhagen metropolitan area.


What are the issues?: Immigration and Muslims, also ethnic minorities and foreigners, integration too. Basically the entire country is polarised around the immigration issue. The right is obsessed with conspiracies about Islamists and the left is obsessed with the Danish People’s Party. Since the Danish Cartoons controversy a more understanding view of Islam and integration has started to take hold however, with frequent documentaries, huge numbers of books (alas in Danish) and thousands of articles discussing the issue. Possibly no other country in Europe has had such an honest and open debate about immigration, ethnic minorities and integration.

Otherwise welfare is always a big issue. The Danes love their welfare state (polls show that many identify it as what makes them Danish), and so it is always a salient issue. The government is pursuing a policy of austerity which is very unpopular in Denmark. The Danes were hit rather hard by the world financial crisis compared to the rest of Scandinavia (though not as badly as their Icelandic cousins obviously!). Unemployment is now around 6.1%, which is a high figure considering that unemployment was down to 2% recently. However there are definite signs of recovery, and Denmark has not been hit nearly as badly as Southern Europe, the US, or the UK.

Otherwise Danes are actually a rather happy sort. Polls continually show the Danish as the happiest people on Earth.

A good source of impartial information is: As you’d expect Denmark has a vibrant free press. In English probably the best source is Politiken. Politiken is Denmark’s second biggest newspaper and has a social liberal slant, but the English site is generally fairly objective, and there is a clear divide between editorial and news content.

The Copenhagen Post is an English language newspaper aimed at expats in Copenhagen, which is also rather good.

Otherwise, every European political nerd should read a site which collates and translates the best newspaper articles from around Europe, and similarly der Spiegel’s English Language site (der Spiegel is essentially a German equivalent of The Economist).

A good book is: There is an irritating tendency to treat all Nordic countries as the same and then write a single book about all of them. There are a couple of decent books in this genre however.The Nordic Model: Scandinavia Since 1945 by Mary Hilson is a generalised history of Scandinavia since 1945, whereas Scandinavian politics today by David Arter is probably the best basic guide to Nordic politics in general. Arter’s <Democracy in Scandinavia: Consensual, Majoritarian or Mixed? is also a good shout for a description of the political systems, whereas The Evolution of Electoral and Party Systems in the Nordic Countriesis a good shout if you want to learn about Nordic Social Democracy, the Progress Parties,  or Nordic Agrarian parties.

If you want something on the Danish cartoons the The Cartoons That Shook the World is supposed to be good, as is The Cartoons Cry.

For something specifically on Scandinavian Social Democracy try The Social Democratic Image of Society: A Study of the Achievements and Origins of Scandinavian Social Democracy in Comparative Perspective.

When are the next elections?: Denmark must go to the polls before the 12th of November 2011 at the very latest. An earlier election is possible however. Polls currently show the left-wing and right-wing blocs roughly as equal, and the election is likely to be close. If the right wins it will be an extraordinary fourth term for them.


§ 5 Responses to Guest post: Denmark

  • glhermine says:

    Denmark, despite being occupied by Germany, held a free election in 1943 in which the Nazis won only 2.1% of the vote. I think it’s the only country under foreign military occupation to have held a free election like that.

    Also, somewhat uniquely to Scandinavia, Copenhagen votes markedly to the left of the country (in fact, SF are very strong there); while Oslo, Stockholm and arguably Helsinki (where the Greens are the second party rather consistently) vote to the right of the country as a whole.

  • CTerry says:

    One thing I meant to mention in the ‘impartial news sources’ section, but which slipped my mind was this thing:

    Scandinavia and the world is a webcomic written by a Dane which satirises Scandinavian news stories, culture and international relations. Denmark is generally portrayed as a naive partier, with a minor drinking problem. Denmark is also portrayed as being racist, but not realising this at all.

    Course this isn’t ‘impartial’ but it perhaps does demonstrate how at least one Dane views the world (and it can be vaguely amusing if you understand what’s going on)

  • Hi. we are organizing an MUN conference and would if possible use the first picture and change it a bit for a logo? does it have ownership?
    Will be very glad to hear your answer.

    Thank you very much in advance,

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