New Stability?

On 1 November 2022, the night of the Danish general elections, a triumphant Lars Løkke Rasmussen – leader of the newly established Moderates party – told his followers, ‘This country is going to have a new government!’ Exit polls put the Red Bloc, the progressive coalition supporting the Social Democratic incumbent Mette Frederiksen, short of an outright majority. The right-wing Blue Bloc were also forecast to miss that threshold. Which meant that Løkke’s centrist platform, which elected 16 deputies out of 179, was set to play the role of kingmaker, potentially catapulting Løkke himself into high office.

He had been there before. From 2009 to 2011, and again from 2015 to 2019, Løkke served as Prime Minister and leader of the largest Blue Bloc party, Venstre. In this capacity he continued to hollow out the welfare state, strengthen punitive migration policies and ignore the climate crisis. He also sought to suppress the most right-wing elements in his Bloc by reaching across the aisle – running, in the 2019 election, on a pledge to unite the centre by working with Frederiksen’s Social Democrats and marginalizing the two ‘wings’, left and right. This would have marked a historic rupture in Danish politics, where parties outside the mainstream typically have to be considered, and thrown a bone or two, when building minority governments.

Although Løkke’s party increased its seat share in 2019, the overall performance of the Blue Bloc was dismal, and Frederiksen showed no interest in working with her rivals. Three years later, though, the situation had changed completely. This time it was Frederiksen herself who ran on the platform of creating a cross-party centrist government. Having spent the entirety of her administration resisting the demands of smaller red and green parties, she had now made it her mission to isolate the left and rule without it.

The final results confounded the early polls: the Red Bloc had, in fact, secured a majority with the slightest of margins. But Frederiksen was no longer interested in a leading a ‘progressive’ government. Instead, she formed a coalition with the Moderates and Venstre, now led by Jakob Ellemann-Jensen. While the Social Democrats secured almost 28% of the vote, its new partners came in second and third place: Venstre with 13% and the Moderates with 9%. That was enough to make Løkke Minister of Foreign Affairs, while Elleman was appointed Minister of Defence. The Social Democrats took the finance ministry as well as the office of Prime Minister. The left performed relatively poorly, with a combined vote of 17%, while the far right – reconfigured as three separate parties – collectively won 14%.

Løkke had broken with Venstre after the 2019 elections and named his new outfit after the governing party from the popular TV drama series Borgen. Life imitates art, as they say; but if Zelensky made the transition from fiction to reality, Løkke has done the opposite: modelling his persona and programme – and even his party’s brand colours – on this centrist fantasy-world. Such Netflixification reflects a wider shift in Danish political culture. Although the country has traditionally been governed by broad coalitions spanning multiple parties, the division between the Red and Blue Blocs was its major fault-line. In this electoral landscape, consensus was established on a range of issues, while specific policy areas were subject to relatively peaceable debate. This meant that a basic level of ideological contestation was preserved; real differences could be aired, albeit to a limited extent, and voters could easily categorize each party according to its Bloc. This system, though far from ideal, at least guaranteed a degree of public participation – which, in turn, ensured political stability and basic trust in the state. Such factors helped to slow the pace of neoliberalization and keep living standards relatively high. They also contributed to Denmark’s comparatively effective handling of the Covid pandemic.

Under this model, Danish businesses may have complained about higher taxes, but they profited from the country’s healthy, educated workforce. Politicians likewise resented the need to make deals with peripheral parties, but they were equally attached to the routine of stable governance. Now, though, the elite’s conception of stability has changed. The alternation of the Blocs has fallen out of favour, and the priority is to fight the wings – or yderfløjene – while consolidating the centre. Frederiksen has framed this about-turn as a response to the changing global conjuncture: war in Ukraine, the rise of China, inflationary pressures. Her election slogan, ‘Safety Through Uncertain Times’, captured this new disposition. 

Frederiksen has a strategic interest in forging this alliance. Leading the Social Democratic government since 2019 has made her an isolated political target. Since her election, the right has portrayed her as a would-be dictator, exploiting the Covid crisis to push through policy in a constant state of exception. She hopes that, by diminishing the intensity of these attacks, a broader centrist coalition will improve her long-term prospects. For Løkke, meanwhile, the new government provides an opportunity not only for a personal comeback but also for ruling without the racism of the far right, whose representatives – such as the Danish People’s Party – had previously undermined his ability to present himself as a sensible, pragmatic technocrat. For these leaders, the main inspiration is the Germanic model, which allowed Merkel to spend decades stifling dissent while maintaining a political status quo that benefited domestic business. Another parallel is Macron’s ‘revolution’ in France, where a dynamic centrism short-circuited the nominal contest between left and right.

Yet such analogies show how easily this model of stability can undermine itself. In France, election turnout is in freefall and the memory of the gilets jaunes still haunts the Élysée Palace. In Germany, the GroKo proved too unwieldy and uninspired to deal with the country’s most pressing issues, from public investment to climate breakdown. The Danish political system is already beginning to display some of the same symptoms. In 2022, voters were confused by the proliferation of new centrist parties, which emerged out of nowhere and were typically dominated by single politicians hoping to create a cult of personality around themselves: Løkke’s Moderates, Inger Støjberg’s Danish Democrats, Alex Vanopslagh’s Liberal Alliance. These faux-charismatic leaders stole one another’s policies, broadcast a similar range of vacuous soundbites and engaged in endless circular debate about, well, nothing really.

Vanopslagh courted younger male voters with a mixture of entrepreneurialism and Jordan Peterson-inspired self-help psychology – mounting an aggressive online advertising campaign that targeted TikTok and porn sites. Støjberg, a former Minister of Integration, leaned into xenophobia, capitalising on the fact that she had previously served a two-month prison sentence for illegally separating asylum-seeker couples. Løkke was hesitant to put forward any concrete policy ideas, aside from tax breaks for the rich and the gradual abolition of state pensions. What all three had in common was the lack of a traditional party apparatus: no large membership base, no conferences, no internal democratic culture. These were top-down PR operations. As they came to dominate the election campaign, public enthusiasm waned. Turnout sank to its lowest level since 1957 (excluding 1990, when voters had been worn down by a series of snap elections). The practice that Peter Mair described as ‘ruling the void’ was now fully operative in Denmark.

Three months into its tenure, what are we to make of Frederiksen’s ‘post-ideological’ government? One of her first acts was to renege on an agreement she had made with the left to increase investment in child care. At the same time, she introduced a raft of regressive tax cuts and – despite public pressure – refused to increase taxes on one of the country’s largest businesses, Mærsk, which posted record profits of over €25 billion for 2022 while paying an effective tax rate of less than 0.3%. Frederiksen recently announced her intention to scrap one of the country’s bank holidays while rapidly increasing military spending. She also unveiled plans to ‘reform’ higher education by cutting the majority of masters courses in the humanities and social sciences down to one year. The latter decision is particularly strange, since no one – not even Danish business – seems to support it. Yet the Social Democrats hope it will advance their political narrative, which positions them on the side of an ordinary, hard-working Denmark, against a parasitic stratum of educated cultural elites. Regrettably, this narrative – which has seen the Social Democrats adopt the anti-immigrant talking point of its erstwhile opponents – has so far enabled the party to appeal to a broad range of social groups.

Frederiksen’s removal of the bank holiday has, however, elicited more resistance than most of her previous policies. More than 400,000 people signed a petition against the bill, about 50,000 demonstrated in Copenhagen, and Social Democratic politicians were disinvited from May Day events across the country, signalling a growing rift between the party and the major trade unions. Although union leaders still maintain friendly relations with Frederiksen and her inner circle, rank-and-file discontent may make this increasingly difficult to sustain. Traditionally, the so-called ‘Danish Model’ demands that industrial disputes are settled by the stakeholders – workers and bosses – with politicians staying out of negotiations or at most playing a mediating role. Yet Social Democratic MPs have become more brazen in their willingness to interfere with this settlement. This has drawn criticism even from the notoriously timid grassroots members of their own party. Whether it leads to deeper divisions between the government and organized labour remains to be seen.

The latest opinion poll shows that support for the governing parties has fallen precipitously, by a combined 11.3%, while the wings have gained about 5% each since the elections. But these shifts in public mood do not mean that a counter-hegemonic project is on the horizon. The Social Democrats remain by far the largest party, with a solid support base comprising public-sector employees and working-class constituencies outside the largest cities. The party and its allies are intent on pushing through a centrist programme that seems as ineluctable as it is unpopular. But the new stability that they are establishing may rest upon a cracked foundation.

Read on: Niels Finn Christiansen, ‘Denmark: End of the Idyll’, NLR I/144.