Danish government voted out — but who moves in depends on a battle of wills on the right

There’ll be Helle to pay back at campaign HQ. Asger Ladefoged

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt has lost the country’s election to a right-wing coalition led by former Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen of the liberal party Venstre.

As the leader of a left-wing bloc of four parties, Social Democrat leader Thorning-Schmidt failed to retain a majority of the votes. Hers remains the largest party in parliament but it does not have a large enough majority to form a government.

The right-wing parties consistently led in the polls during the three weeks before polling day. The left-wing parties seemed to catch up at points and several polls even suggested that Thorning-Schmidt’s coalition could be reelected, but as we learnt from the recent UK election, polls cannot always be trusted. The “right” is back in Danish politics.

Rumbles on the right

Despite the win, all is not as well as it could be for Rasmussen and the Liberal party. By the end of the count the party had lost 13 seats, cutting it down to 34 seats in the new parliament. That leaves it reliant on many other parties for the needed majority of 90 seats.

The main reason for the slide is likely to be Rasmussen’s personal image. He has been implicated in a number of political scandals over the past four years, including expensive travelling and shopping for clothes with party funds. These escapades are likely to have damaged the electorate’s trust in his character and abilities as a statesman.

I didn’t vote for this guy! Rasmussen has seen his popularity slide. EPA/Nils Meilvang

Instead, the electoral gains made by the right-wing bloc can largely be attributed to the phenomenal success of the Danish People’s Party, a traditionally populist party that focuses on immigration and social issues. The party is now the second largest in Denmark in the wake of this vote, and larger than Rasmussen’s Liberal party. And unlike the Liberal party, the Danish People’s party has a very popular leader in Kristian Thulesen Dahl.

This presents a difficult situation for Rasmussen. He will have to convince Thulesen Dahl to make him the Prime Minister, despite the fact that the Danish People’s Party got more votes.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the right-wing coalition consists of two more parties, both of which will have to sign off on any new government. Crucially, these are two parties that do not have fond feelings for the Danish People’s Party at all.

It may be a long time before we know who will form a government in Denmark.

Out with the old

The big story of this election is the news that one in five Danes voted for the Danish People’s Party. While Rasmussen’s lack of popularity can partially explain the electoral momentum of the once smaller party, there seem to be other important factors at play.

Rising star Kristian Thulesen Dahl. EPA/Keld Navntoft

Polls ahead of the election showed that voters trusted the political establishment less than ever, and parties without experience in government are on the rise across ideological divides. In fact, the anti-establishment parties secured their largest ever share of the vote in this election.

One new party, literally called “the Alternative”, ran on a platform that included a thirty-hour working week and “meat-free days”. Very few observers considered them serious contenders. They ultimately took 5% of the vote.

There are several potential reasons for this trend. Many Danes are dissatisfied with the extensive welfare reforms enacted in response to financial crisis by Liberal and Social Democratic governments alike. Voters saw the campaigns of the established parties as too technocratic and without any visionary ideas.

The exact reason for the dissatisfaction with the establishment is hard to pinpoint. However, it will without a doubt shape Danish politics in the years to come, especially when it comes to the inner workings of the new parliament.

And the new parliament is very new. In fact, one needs to go back almost 40 years to 1977 to find a situation where as many seats shifted between the parties. Back then, the election was followed by a very unstable period in Danish politics, with shifting coalitions and weak governments.

Unless the right-wing bloc of parties finds a productive way to work out their differences, this might very well be the case again.