Denmark: the new period of instability has just begun

The latest elections in Denmark saw the Socialdemocrats strengthening their mandate, while some Red Coalition parties lost support. In what is a bold move for the reality of Danish politics, prime minister Mette Federiksen has decided to create a government with more liberal and moderate parties. This kind of administration would, according to her, stabilise the situation in the country. We have asked journalist and militant Niklas Zenius Jespersen about the possible advantages and risks of this move.

Interview by Wojciech Albert Łobodziński.

Niklas Zenius Jespersen. Photo by Andreas Bulow

So this election happened in the first place because of mismanagement of Cluster 5… or what it exactly means?

It happened during Covid-19 outbreak. In Denmark at this time we used to have a huge mink industry. It became a big problem because of an outbreak of COVID-19 among the mink. We were afraid of a new mutation of COVID-19, known as “Cluster 5”, infecting humans. The Danish government, the social democratic government, decided to kill all the minks in order to prevent that. It was done very fast and it was shown later that the process did not follow the legal procedures. Later there was a committee that ran an investigation about the whole issue. It showed that it was too rushed and that there had been legal problems Although the ministers did not deliberately break the law, the misconduct indeed happened.

The cause for the mismanagement,was that the government had centralised too much power – this was the suggested conclusion. So, the socialliberal party called the ministers out, demanding new elections.

.. and they have scored the best result in the last 20 years, a little more than 20%. Apparently people were not that upset with this mink mismanagement..

The big media – most of them social liberal or conservative, as there are no trade unions or working class media – exploited this affair. For most of them it was a big scandal. But the majority of the people don’t think so.

It was interesting to see the scores even among countryside people, who were affected by the mink industry collapse. On the other hand, Frederiksen’s party’s score was so good, or seemed so good, because for the last 20 or more years the Social Democrats have been in decline. In the more distant past, they were able to score 30%, 40%, sometimes even slightly more. So this score is indeed the best since 2021, but far from best historical results.

It should also be said that until recently social democrats were really popular when it comes to opinion polls. There was a general popularity, thanks to handling the COVID-19 pandemia in Denmark. So even this improvement was a loss compared to their prospects a year ago.

There was a strict lockdown?

Partial lockdowns. It wasn’t illegal to go out, but there were limits on numbers of people who could assemble in public. The restaurants and other places were working under these strict lockdowns. Schools, universities worked online. There were tests and other things. But still it was handled fairly well. Compared to other countries, the death toll and infections were really low.

But this popularity went away in the last half a year. Still it was really good for social democrats. But the election was a setback for the parliamentary majority, if we count it the same way as the last majority with Federiksen, there is now only a one mandate majority. This is due to a loss for the left and a big loss for the social-liberals.

During the campaign Federiksen said that she was going to form a centre-left leaning government with Moderates and liberals. Why is that? In the end, the government’s mandate expanded.. 

She’s been saying that for a year. She is not fearing losing the majority, she could continue the last direction. I think more a thing is that there is a lot of instability at the moment, war in Ukraine, gas prices, energy prices, inflation, we have just had a corona pandemic, and also Baltic Pipe explosions.. There are a lot of things going on. So I guess she wants to form a sort of unity government. 

Mette Frederiksen has been the Prime Minister of Denmark since 2019.

What is the main instability factor?

I would say rising prices. There has been an extensive rise in inflation. My own single breakfast has doubled in price during the last half of year. 

The inflation rate is at 8,5% right now in Denmark. 

Yeah, but only the working people have felt that.  An average family has lost 40 000 Kroners in real spending power during the last year. This is a loss of 5-6 thousand euros – a significant loss of buying power.

Denmark used to be self-sustaining when it comes to energy. But due to maintenance problems the largest gas field in the North Sea is closed, so now we import gas and oil.

We have some austerity measures imposed on the public sector, there are temperature limits. Some people were forced to sell their houses because they didn’t have enough money to sustain them. 

So this centre-left government is about handling the stability issues coming from above mentioned directions?

There is also another factor here. We have seen social democrats going to the right recently. Especially in economic areas, welfare state management and so on. The government ended a lot of austerity measures imposed by its predecessors. But at the same time they did not raise the spending on healthcare or education, they have even cut it. In some sectors there has already been 20 years of austerity. Especially schools, healthcare and universities. Also pension age is rising. There is a special gateway for people who have been in the labour market for more than 40 years, so they can retire at the same old age limit.

Last year their policy, which had gained them popularity, changed. They cut some unemployment benefits, especially for young people. They introduced new austerity measures. They increased the military spending, in order to get it to 2% required by NATO. Denmark also used to have an exemption from the EU military cooperation, but that was abolished through a referendum called by the government, using the war in Ukraine as a pretext.

The Red-Green Alliance, The Socialist People’s Party and some more green, semi-leftiest parties have been against parts of this right shift. So now the Social Democrats are looking for someone who would make it more possible for them, expanding the above mentioned austerity measures. They have even said that the times are bad etc., using this crisis vocabulary that we all know. 

Sometimes Danish Ssocial Fdemocrats sound like conservative Brits when it comes to immigration, with the ideas of deportation to Rwanda.

Yes, there has in general been a continuous  severe right-shift in regards to refugees and immigration for many years.

The right-wing and the social democrats compete with each other on who can be “tougher” on immigration. This has ended up with Denmark being among the worst countries in Europe on issues of rights for immigrants and refugees.

Denmark is even sending refugees back to Syria, threatening refugee children with expulsion and picking old senile people up at care homes in the middle of the night and forcing them on planes to be deported. The plan to send refugees to Rwanda is the latest development. The government has in secret made an agreement with Rwanda but it has not been carried out yet. It’s a big prestige project for the social democrats, supported by the right. The social liberals and the left have come out against it, even announcing they will topple the government if it goes forward with the plans, though there was uncertainty during the election of the position of the Red-Green Alliance. First they said they wouldn’t support a government that sent refugees to Rwanda, then they softentd their position, saying they would vote against it but could live with a government doing it. Then there was an outcry from the members of the party so the changed it again to that they would topple the government if it actually sent refugees to Rwanda.

And where is right now the Red alliance, so the parties that used to support social democrats?

The parliamentary majority for the left was mainly achieved through social democrats in our history together with the social liberals and those parties that are more to the left. They place themself, of course, at the left of the whole government. The Socialist People’s Party always used this complex approach that made it possible for them to sacrifice and accept some austerity measures for something else. The Red Green alliance however used to be founded on the total rejection of these measures. They didn’t want to make possible any step back.

This policy changed in the last period. In the end they have accepted some agreements on that, which were unpopular at the lower levels of the party. They have accepted austerity and privatisation. They have stopped pushing the government into the more greener and socially just direction. In the end grassroot members have started to be more and more frustrated with the government. Instead of fighting with social democrats they have accepted the Frederiksen approach, because of the fear of something worse. Now the Red Green Alliance said that if social democrats try to form a government with Moderates, a new liberal party, then the Red Green Alliance will  be in opposition against that. On the other hand the  Socialist People’s Party said that it is not a good idea to form a government with centrists, but have not said that it would take a way of opposition against it. All of those parties are taking part in the negotiations right now. 

So what is the future of the upcoming government, is there any certainty about it? 

If there is going to be Liberal party in the government, it is going to be a real game changer. Denmark doesn’t have a history of governments across the centre, with the exception of the social liberals cooperating with the social democrats.

At the moment, everything is still up in the air. The social democrats have a majority to form either a traditional government of themselves and maybe the social liberals, but they are also negotiating with the Liberals, Conservatives and the Moderates. The Conservatives and Liberals have been against such a government during the election but they took a beating in the polls, so now they are more insecure on what to do and under pressure from parts of the capitalist to participate in negotiations.

On the other hand, the Moderates have supported Mette Frederiksen in forming a new government and proposed a unity government during the election, in order to push the parties further to the left and right out of influence.

The Moderates are a new party, formed by the former Liberal prime minister Lars Løkke. They claim to be a moderating compromise between welfare and liberal policies. But in reality they are clearly a very right wing liberal party. They proposed a tax reform that would mean a historical increase in inequality and tax the workers harder in order to tax the rich less.  Even libertarian think tanks say that their tax reform is too liberal. They also want to abolish the common pension system. And this is way too much. If they ask for too many reforms in these economic areas, social democrats will lose their support if they accept it. The new government is still an open question. With the exemption of the World War 2, there has only once been a liberal-social democratic government. And it ended after only 14 months.

One thing is certain: Denmark is going through instability, and it will go further like this. I guess it is going to be very hard for social democrats to manage creating a social-centre-liberal government, without losing the support of the trade unions. 

Is there a possibility of the split in the Social Democratic party?

Till now there hasn’t been any signs of that. There are no groups of possible splitters. What I can say is that social democrats are losing the influence among trade unions, especially during the last ten years this process has rapidly advanced. They used to dominate them completely.

Right now trade unionists are supporting more and more Socialist People Party and Red-Green Alliance. Social democrats still have the majority, but they have lost a lot of posts, and that could probably influence their policies. But again up in the air is also the question of the common left answer to formation of this government. The left lost the election, especially Red-Green Alliance, they lost a third of their mandates. Their more moderate turn wasn’t welcomed by their voters. And they lost almost two percent compared to the last election. Right now there is an internal debate about it, if the party should turn to the left or continue on a more moderate course. Maybe they shall combat Social-Democrats more? We will see what the answer will be. Right now there is no opposition towards socdems which leaves them with a lot of space to play their game. Maybe that will change. 

So this government is going to be unstable?

Yes, I am quite certain of it. We still have to see if it comes to the making process, but right now we are heading for more instability when it comes to my opinion. 

Niklas Zenius Jespersen is a member of The Socialist (Socialisten) group and writer for its Magazine of the same name as well as an activist in The Red-Green Alliance, holding elected posts on branch level and in its Education Policy Group. Niklas is also an organiser in the Peace Initiative (Fredsinitiativet), the “Hands Off Venezuela” solidarity movement and a former Student Union leader.

Cover photo: Christiansborg Palace, the government building on the islet of Slotsholmen in central Copenhagen, the seat of the Danish Parliament, the Danish Prime Minister’s Office and the Supreme Court of Denmark.

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