Did the Left Really Win in Denmark?

The Social Democrats are poised to lead the next government, but after adopting the far-right’s anti-immigration agenda the party isn’t what it used to be.

Youth members prepare for the visit of the head of the Social Democrats, Mette Frederiksen (displayed on banners), at a meeting celebrating the International Workers' Day in Aalborg, Denmark on May 1.
Youth members prepare for the visit of the head of the Social Democrats, Mette Frederiksen (displayed on banners), at a meeting celebrating the International Workers' Day in Aalborg, Denmark on May 1. HENNING BAGGER/AFP/Getty Images

The Danish left seemingly won this week’s parliamentary election. For the first time in decades, immigration was not the key campaign issue. Instead, center-left parties surged due to widespread worries about climate change and the welfare state. The Social Democrat-led bloc won 91 of the 179 seats in parliament, and their leader Mette Frederiksen, 41, is set to be Denmark’s youngest prime minister. At the same time, the far-right Danish People’s Party (DPP)—which won more than 20 percent of the vote in 2015—shrunk drastically, taking less than 9 percent on Wednesday, its worst result since it became a major political player 20 years ago.

Together with similar victories in Sweden and Finland, the sea change in Danish politics seems to suggest a Scandinavian center-left resurgence. But that may not be the case. In response to the popularity of the DPP, the Social Democrats have gradually adopted the far-right’s anti-immigration stance.

They have, for example, supported a controversial plan to stop accepting an annual quota of refugees resettled by the United Nations; a paradigm shift in immigration policy that moves the emphasis from integration toward returning migrants to their countries of origin; and a so-called ghetto plan with harsher punishments for criminals from deprived majority-immigrant areas, prison sentences for immigrant parents who take their children on extended visits to their countries of origin, and mandatory culture and values education for 1-year-olds that are not required for ethnic Danes. They have gone so far as calling for the closure of asylum centers in Denmark, and instead detaining asylum seekers offshore by establishing facilities in North African countries close to conflict areas.

Frederiksen now has to decide whether to stick to her hard-line stance or to find common ground with the three centrist and leftist parties within her parliamentary bloc.

The largest of these parties, the center-left Social Liberals, ran a very successful campaign calling for a clean break with the xenophobic turn that Denmark has witnessed in recent years, leading to the abandonment of many of the country’s long-standing commitments to refugees and human rights more broadly. In his victory speech, the Social Liberals’ leader, Morten Ostergaard, called the election the end of an era that has placed the DPP at the center of Danish politics, produced some of the harshest immigration policies in Europe, and tarnished Denmark’s international reputation.

This is not the argument Frederiksen and her party put forward in their campaign. Rather, the Social Democrats, seeking to oust a center-right government, emphasized the need to boost public spending, increase welfare benefits, and launch new environmentally friendly policies. These positions chime better with the three parties that traditionally support Social Democratic governments—the Social Liberals, the Socialist People’s Party, and the far-left Red-Green Alliance. These parties will now present a list of demands that should, in theory, pull Frederiksen’s new government to the left. But immigration remains the sticky issue.

Historically a humanist, internationalist party which embraced Denmark’s responsibility to receive asylum seekers and integrate foreign migrants into Danish society, the Social Democrats have become increasingly restrictive.

For decades, Denmark’s Social Democrats have wrestled with this issue as the DPP sought to lure working-class voters to the anti-immigration right. Historically a humanist, internationalist party which embraced Denmark’s responsibility to receive asylum seekers and integrate foreign migrants into Danish society, they have become increasingly skeptical and restrictive. So have the Liberals, Denmark’s large center-right party. The outgoing Liberal government’s minister of integration, Inger Stojberg, has been the public face of policies that brought international headlines in recent years, such as advertisements in Lebanese newspapers that asylum seekers should stay away from Denmark, a law permitting the confiscation of refugees’ jewelry on arrival in Denmark, and harsh conditions in notorious refugee centers.

The Social Democrats have lent their support to most of these policies. This is a far cry from the late 1990s, when then Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen famously used a derogatory phrase suggesting that the DPP would never be “house-trained.” The increasing integration of the DPP into Danish politics and the triumph of its anti-immigration stance have largely proven him wrong. Indeed, the DPP has sat comfortably at the heart of Danish politics without participating in governing coalitions for almost two decades—allowing the party to become a kingmaker and thought leader, leading Denmark gradually toward adopting some of the harshest anti-immigration policies in all of Europe.

Both the Liberals and the Social Democrats have been internally divided over the nationalist, anti-immigration direction of Danish politics. The EU-friendly internationalists in the Liberal party look more to German Chancellor Angela Merkel than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and publicly cringe over Stojberg, whereas Frederiksen has managed to keep dissent in her party mostly in-house.

But Frederiksen may not be able to contain dissent on the left for long. The Social Democrats’ critical strategic choice has been to prevent their supporters from defecting to the DPP. The two parties appeal to a similar demographic of working- and middle-class Danes. After losing an estimated 5-10 percent of their voter base to the DPP in the 2000s, the Social Democrats began to adjust their immigration policy under the leadership of Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who served as prime minister from 2011 to 2015. Since then, and in response to the refugee crisis in 2015, Frederiksen has taken a step further and aligned the Social Democrats very closely with the center-right government’s line, if not completely with the ideas of the DPP.

These policies will be very hard to go back on. At the same time, Frederiksen is now facing negotiations with her natural left-wing coalition partners, who may not accept this package. They want to drastically improve conditions in the asylum centers and resume acceptance of U.N. quota refugees. They will not accept business as usual.

It’s an unexpected situation. Frederiksen knew that her partners would have demands, but she had not anticipated the DPP’s historic rout, the largest single loss of seats of any Danish party in a century. The result means that Frederiksen unexpectedly no longer needs to pander to the DPP, which lost 21 of its 37 seats. At the same time, she can hardly risk going back on her promises to voters, many of whom support a hard-line approach on immigration and some of whom have been recouped from the DPP.

Ironically, the DPP lost support at the very moment that the two largest parties, the Social Democrats and the Liberals, adopted the far-right’s draconian immigration policies. But the DPP failed to live up to its promises on economic policy. Despite being the architects of Denmark’s welfare state, the Social Democrats from 2011 to 2015 oversaw an ongoing privatization of the public sector. This created an opening for the DPP to rebrand itself as the protector of the welfare state. But they didn’t live up to it. Instead, they became a key supporting party for a Liberal government—a coalition that included champions of privatization.

Another factor explaining their demise is the rise of two new right-wing parties—one of which, the New Right, won seats in parliament. The other, Hard Line, whose firebrand, overtly racist leader Rasmus Paludan drew widespread media attention in past months with YouTube videos of him verbally abusing Muslims and torching and kicking copies of the Quran. Paludan, who campaigned on promises of deporting Muslim immigrants, narrowly missed the cut but effectively drew nearly 2 percent of the national vote that would have gone to DPP in the past. The rise of these parties shows that a significant minority of the Danish population is not just against immigration, but supports drastic measures to change the country’s ethnic composition.

In comparison, the DPP’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and stereotyping seemed tame. Its current leader, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, has made a great effort to temper the party’s language and make it appear less provocative than France’s National Rally (formerly National Front) and the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom. Outdone by populist competitors, Thulesen Dahl cut a somewhat lame figure.

As they seek to form a government, Frederiksen’s Social Democrats now face a dilemma: They campaigned by pandering to DPP voters on immigration, but the election result suggests a swing to the left. She faces a political landscape that suddenly looks very different; it now includes a sizable, mobilized resistance against anti-immigration politics. Does the party reckon with this change in popular opinion and give in to the demands of its left-wing allies, including on immigration, or does it stand firm?

If Frederiksen ignores the shift, a partnership with the Liberals—and perhaps even the DPP—could be her only alternative. This would please the Liberals’ outgoing prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who suggested such a scenario in the final weeks of the campaign when it became clear that his bloc would lose. But it would probably cost Frederiksen in the long run. The choice she makes could determine whether the left in Denmark returns to its humanist roots or continues down the nationalist road it has followed for the past decade.

Sune Haugbolle is a professor in global studies at Roskilde University in Denmark and author of War and Memory in Lebanon.

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