Social Democrat Helle Thorning-Schmidt is Denmark's new Prime Minister, but beyond that it's complicated


Europe, leadership, world politics

Author(s):  Jon Worth
Published date:  16 Sep 2011

Denmark has a new Prime Minister. She's Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of the Social Democrats, and her victory in yesterday's election not only ushers in a change of government but is an important symbolic victory for the centre-left in Europe, the left having been on the receiving end of election defeats for so long. 

Importantly the new administration is not going to be reliant on the support of the populist right Danish People's Party, so expect a more progressive and liberal approach to EU and migration matters in the coming 4 years.

87.7% of those eligible to vote did so – that's a refreshingly high turnout, and is even slightly up on the 2007 election, so the Danish democratic system is in good health.

Beyond that things are more complex, for the Danish population failed to deliver a decisive result.

The left bloc managed to gain 92 seats in the 179 seat Folketing, with the blue bloc on 87, giving the red bloc a wafer thin majority of 5 seats.

Within the red bloc the Social Democrats lost 1 seat, to 44 (24.9% of the vote), their worst result since 1905. Villy Søvndal's Socialist People's Party (SF), Helle's closest allies, lost 7 seats, down to 16 seats (9.2%). In the meantime Margrethe Vestager's Radicals  (more centrist – 17 seats, 9.5%) and Johanne Schmidt Nielsen and Unity List (further left than SF – 12 seats, 6.7%) both registered considerable gains, with the Radicals narrowly pipping SF to be the second largest party on the left. Delicate coalition negotiations between Social Democrats, SF and Radicals lie ahead, with Unity List ready to support the government but not to join it with ministers.

In the blue bloc things are no less complex. The 'winner' on the night was outgoing Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen whose Liberals (Venstre) increased their parliamentary representation to 47 seats (26.7%). Venstre's success came largely at the expense of the Conservatives (8 seats, 4.9%), the night's big losers, and marginally at the expense of the populist right Danish People's Party whose 22 seats / 12.3% of the vote is a small decrease but by no means a collapse – they are still third largest party in Parliament. Samuelson's Liberal Alliance have 9 seats (5.0%).

The election is no ringing endorsement of Thorning-Schmidt personally, and questions about her leadership dogged the Social Democrats throughout the campaign. She will not be negotiating a coalition deal from the position of strength that she will have hoped, although the generally cooperative and responsible attitude of Søvndal and Vestager should make a coalition deal a certainty. However, the result leaves the left well and truly fractured between four parties, a problem previously highlighted in other European countries by David Miliband.

While Schmidt-Nielsen and Unity List welcomed Thorning-Schmidt's victory, she was keen to emphasise they will work to hold Thorning-Schmidt to her promises, and fights with the Radicals over economic policy lie ahead. Initially the determination of all four parties on the left to show they are more cooperative and more optimistic than the Danish People's Party (who held the outgoing administration to ransom) will help hold everything together, but this effect will diminish as the election term goes on.

The main task for the new administration is to get Denmark's economy moving again after stagnant growth this year – no easy task considering the economic picture across the EU. Greater investments in training and moderate tax rises await, although calls for greater public sector employment will be tempered by the more free market Radicals. Denmark's 6-month Presidency of the Council of the EU starts in January 2012; expect a symbolic thawing of relations between Denmark and other EU Member States over Schengen and customs controls between now and then.

In short, Denmark has delivered a delicately balanced political future, yet on the basis of a democratic system that is very much alive and well. The left can breathe a sigh of relief, but this result is far from a resounding resurgence of European social democracy.