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Denmark’s Nativist Threat

In Denmark, the Left's task is to take on both neoliberalism and the rising anti-immigrant right.

Pia Kjærsgaard, the cofounder of the far-right Danish People's Party. AP

The Danish elections on June 18 proved to be closer and more unpredictable than anyone expected. The center-left government under Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt of the Social Democrats has been highly unpopular for several years, trailing in the polls after implementing a privatization program, cutting social protections, and failing to deliver on campaign promises. Despite gaining seats in the election, Thorning Schmidt’s broader “red” coalition lost to the “blue” coalition led by Venstre, the Liberal Party.

However, the blue coalition — helmed by the relatively unpopular Lars Løkke Rasmussen — won by a narrow margin, and owed its victory to strong support for the populist right-wing Danish People’s Party (DPP). Venstre’s hope for a coalition between the right parties quickly broke down, so the result will be a single party government under Venstre, which got only 19.5% of the vote.

With such a weak position it will be hard for the new government to get its program of tax cuts and benefits reductions benefits through parliament, but a dramatic policy shift from the former center-left government is unlikely. While Denmark is not a euro country, it abides strictly to the limits to fiscal policy set by the financial pact, and the previous government, led by the Social Democrats, implemented neoliberal reforms and strict immigration controls.

Beneath the surface the elections demonstrate a large shift in the electoral base — despite their reputation as the happiest people on Earth, the Danes are growing increasingly frustrated and have turned to anti-establishment parties on the left and the right in response. This political disaffection is partly rooted in anti-Europe and anti-immigration anxiety, and partly caused by widespread opposition to the major cuts to social protection and welfare that have been implemented since the 2008 crisis.

The Politics of Necessity

Danish parliamentary politics have traditionally been dominated by two opposing multiparty political blocs. The center-left bloc includes the Social Democrats and the social-liberal party supported by the Socialist People’s Party, the radical left Red-Green Alliance, and a new green party called The Alternative.

The right coalition is led by Venstre, along with the Conservative Party, the neoliberal Liberal Alliance, and the DPP.

The balance between the two blocs was relatively stable in this election, but within the blocs a polarization of the electorate occurred, concentrating around the far right and the radical left. Denmark has had a tradition of widespread political consensus — not only across political lines, with frequent coalition governments and broad majorities backing major political reforms, but also along social lines, with widespread corporate and political agreements between labor unions and employers.

In the last three decades, this broad bloc of center-right and center-left parties has been united in support of a moderate neoliberal reform program — often referred to, in a Danish version of TINA, as “the politics of necessity” — that has angered voters. As a result, the vote share of the four traditional governing parties in the center left and center right fell in the last elections to a record low of 53.8%.

However, the main story coming out of the elections has been the gradual growth of the DPP. With 21%, it was the second highest vote-getter.

Much of the coverage in the international media has focused on the anti-immigrant position of the DPP, seeing the election primarily as a victory for Danish xenophobia. But while xenophobia arguably does a play a role in the DPP’s rise, there are other forces at play.

The populist message of the DPP has expanded well beyond attacks on immigration. The party has increasingly campaigned on the safeguarding of welfare rights and social protection, successfully placing themselves to the left of the Social Democrats in the popular imagination (despite having voted for almost all of the recent neoliberal economic reforms). This has allowed them to reach broader electorates that would otherwise be repelled by their harsh anti-immigration stance.

The party has been able to tap into widespread feelings of insecurity and disaffection among large parts of the blue-collar working class in the wake of serious welfare retrenchment and cuts to pension rights and unemployment benefits. This development has been strongest in peripheral areas experiencing deindustrialization and isolation from economic activities, which are increasingly centered around Copenhagen and other major cities.

But the DPP is not alone. To its right is the Liberal Alliance, the country’s first truly neoliberal party, with an electoral agenda of drastic welfare cuts and liberalization, and at the other end of the political spectrum, the new green party — The Alternative — has emerged, with a program of de-growth, green entrepreneurship, and participatory democracy. To everyone’s surprise, The Alternative made the 2% threshold and got nine seats, while the radical left Red-Green Alliance got the best result in the party’s history with 8% of the vote.

Cracks in the Nordic Model

Despite the Red-Green Alliance achieving its strongest electoral result in the last six decades, the prospects for a break with the neoliberal consensus in the coming years look bleak. Broad political agreement has formed around the need to reform the welfare state through tax cuts, reduction of pension rights and benefits, and privatization of utilities and services. Since the 1990s, this consensus has included the Social Democrats, as they led a government that spearheaded some of the largest privatizations in the country’s history and introduced the first workfare reforms.

Denmark still has a unionization rate of more than 66%, and its social insurance schemes remain relatively robust. But under the surface, the Nordic model is cracking. Unions are declining, particularly in the private sector, and while inequality remains low in an international context, the Scandinavian countries are near the top of the list of developed countries whose Gini coefficients jumped in the 2000s.

Once a model for progressive forces in both the East and West, the social systems of the Nordic countries are today moving closer and closer to the European mainstream.

After the 2008 economic crisis, the slow pace of neoliberal restructuring picked up steam. Denmark had one of the largest housing bubbles in Europe and suffered a 6.4% drop in GDP in 2008–9 (surpassing the 1930s), and unemployment shot up by almost 4%. Despite Denmark’s relatively healthy fiscal situation — its debt was less than 45% of GDP — the right-wing government in power in 2010 implemented a harsh austerity package that included a decrease in the level and duration of unemployment benefits and a drastic increase in the retirement age.

These reforms were initially opposed by the unions and the center left, but after taking power in the 2011 election, the center-left government intensified austerity with a series of additional reforms, including new restrictions on disability allowance and corporate tax cuts. These moves caused widespread disillusionment and anger among center-left voters that was further exacerbated by a 2014 government deal to sell 19% of the state-owned energy company to Goldman Sachs.

Although their support for neoliberal policies has driven many of their traditional voters towards the DPP and the Red-Green Alliance, the Social Democrats have managed to avoid total collapse. While their 26% of the vote is far from their historical strength, the party increased their electoral showing for the first time in almost two decades and is once again the biggest political party, despite losing government power.

The Social Democrats’ survival strategy has rested on a move to the right on both immigration and economic issues. The party leader, Helle Thorning Schmidt, resigned after the electoral defeat, and it remains to be seen whether her successor, Mette Frederiksen, will continue this course or attempt a shift to the left on economic issues in order to win back the traditional working-class voters.

Prospects for the Left

The state of the parliamentary left is mixed. Unlike most European countries, Denmark has three parties to the left of the Social Democrats with parliamentary representation.

The Socialist People’s Party (SF) — formed after a split from the Communist Party in 1956 — has traditionally been the dominant force, pursuing a gradualist political strategy of trying to push the Social Democrats to the left. But after entering the government coalition in 2011, the SF proved unable to draw the government to the left, and ended up supporting a program of privatization, welfare reduction, and corporate tax cuts. This move split the party and, after the Goldman Sachs deal, ultimately forced the SF out of government. In last month’s election, the SF got only 4% of the votes.

Most of the electoral space left after the collapse of the SF has been taken up by the Red-Green Alliance, a Syriza-like coalition of the radical left that was formed in 1989 by a variety of left parties. After spending two decades as a relatively marginal political force, this year the alliance had its best elections in its history, winning 8% of the vote. Unlike the SF the Red-Green Alliance has been very vocal in its opposition to the center-left government’s neoliberal reforms, and has been able to attract large groups of disaffected left voters as a result.

Part of the Red-Green Alliance’s recent success is attributable to its conscious campaign to broaden its appeal outside far-left circles and the big cities, and reach out to new voter groups among immigrants, the unemployed, the working class, and other marginalized groups. This has increased its support in peripheral areas and working-class suburbs, but has also led to the party losing ground in traditional strongholds: a substantial portion of well-educated big-city voters has fled to The Alternative.

Unlike many other European countries, strong protest movements have been relatively absent in Denmark in recent years. Unions and student movements mobilized protests against the economic reforms of the former right-wing governments from 2001 to 2011 with some successes. But the union movement, dominated by the Social Democrats, has been unable or unwilling to mobilize against the reforms of the center-left government and no new significant movements have emerged.

While the lack of a strong extra-parliamentary movement in some way makes the result of the Red-Green Alliance even more remarkable, it also presents problems going forward. As the only parliamentary voice against neoliberal reforms and privatization, the party is isolated and needs a stronger social basis in order to successfully challenge the neoliberal consensus.

Against the Neoliberal Consensus

The political situation in the coming years remains unclear for Denmark.

The election results were a blow to the economic orthodoxy of the traditional political establishment. While crisis and unemployment are far from the levels in southern Europe, and employment is now slowly rising, large groups of the population are feeling the effects of unemployment, wage stagnation, and rising economic insecurity. This situation is worsened by the harsh economic reforms of the last years.

So far most of this disaffection has been captured by the populist right, which has been able to present an image of being socially conscious protectors of the welfare state, while in practice supporting the neoliberal reform agenda. The desire to retain this double image is the most likely explanation for the party’s refusal to enter the new government, despite being the largest party in the right-wing coalition. Yet this refusal creates significant tensions inside the right-wing bloc, and puts the liberal government in a weak and unstable position.

If the Left wants to translate this instability into progressive economic and political change, it needs to develop a more coherent response to the insecurity and economic problems experienced by large parts of the population. This includes the unemployed, immigrants, workers afraid of losing their jobs to international competition, the young in precarious employment, and peripheral voters fearing centralization and deindustrialization. The potential exists for building alliances between these groups to oppose the continued dismantling of the welfare state and regulated labor market.

Despite the strong performance of the radical left in the elections, it seems unlikely that the Social Democrats will break with the neoliberal status quo, attenuating the prospects for such a movement. In the absence of organization, the growing political disaffection and anxiety will continue to be channelled towards the populist right.

A radical political project in Denmark demands a new coalition between labor unions, popular movements, and left parties.