The great centrist European tradition of social democracy has been under the weather for the last few decades and the recent European Parliament elections were a reminder how much their appeal has diminished. However, by way of contrast, Denmark's social democrats have established something of a bridgehead, defeating the centre-right coalition led by the Venstre party's Lars Løkke Rasmussen in the general election held on June 5. Parties on the Left won some 52.1% of the vote, while their right wing opponents netted only 41%. Extreme parties, such as Stram Kurs, were kept out.
Analysis from outside the country is typically skewed. The victory has been portrayed as a return to worn social democratic clothing after a good airing. In raw terms, the results show a return to form for the left. However, these results disguise the actual change of political attire. Danish voters did not renew their progressive vows. Rather, the left edged – and in some cases leaped – to the right.
After defeat in 2015 the Danish Social Democrats did not try to convince more voters to support their existing vision for the future. Instead, they modelled a new vision on that of the 2015 victors. That year had seen the arrival of 21,000 migrants, causing a disruption to the public mood. "I know that many Danes are worried about the future," asserted the newly elected leader of the Social Democrats, Mette Frederiksen. "Worried about jobs, about open borders. About whether we can find a balance in immigration policy." In an interview with TV2, she suggested that Denmark was not good at integrating refugee arrivals; nor was it "heroic or humane to bring so many people here that the problems become huge in our own country."
Frederiksen's adroit policy has been to play the devil, the humanitarian and the dissembler. Social welfare has been returned to the centre of political discussion, but the issue of refugees and asylum seekers has also been prominently – and negatively – featured. To TV2 on Monday, she spoke of her interest in implementing "an economic plan that benefits the fight against inequality and invests in welfare." Yes, the civic compact of the welfare state will be renewed, but outsiders, those desperate to be admitted to it, will be kept at arm's length.
Over the last four years, strict immigration laws passed by the Rasmussen government have been endorsed by the Social Democrats. Rather than accentuating the differences, Frederiksen did all she could to shrink the gulf between her party and her opponents. To that end, her party, in 824 legislative votes since 2015, has voted with the government over 90% of the time.
Unappetising measures, sharpened for their populist appeal, have been given the Social Democrat nod of approval: banishing rejected asylum seekers unable to return home and foreigners convicted of crimes to the island of Lindholm, known for a resident population of cattle and swine said to carry viral diseases; granting intrusive police powers enabling the confiscation from refugees of goods deemed non-essential and worth more than 10,000 kroner; and fining those wearing garments covering their faces in public places.
In February, the Danish parliament passed Bill L 140, which shifts the immigration focus away from integration to repatriation, including repatriation of those who do not have permanent status and UN quota refugees. The Social Democrats went along with this "paradigm shift" despite disagreeing with a reduction of the social welfare benefit known as the integrationsydelsen. Social Democrat spokesperson for immigration Mattias Tesfaye stated bluntly: "People will be given the more honest message that their stay in Denmark is temporary."
Spokesperson for the Red-Green alliance, Pelle Dragsted, summed up the Bill in disgust: "The essence of this is about making life harder and more unpleasant for people who have come here to escape Assad's barrel bombs and the sex slavery and terror of Islamic State."
The Social Democrats have also campaigned on shifting the focus away from Denmark as a refugee receiving state and moving the focus towards the countries, and regions, of origin. This they have dubbed a "Marshall plan for Africa". The idea is to go to the source of devastation, and improve the situation with structural and financial incentives. We shall help more, goes the party's policy, though "we cannot help all in Europe and Denmark."
Despite a collapse in the 2019 election (37 mandates shorn by 21), the Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DPP) supplies a textbook example of how parties of the far right can terrify, and thus convince opponents into shifting their ground. When its candidates first gained a voice in Denmark's parliament in 1998, the DPP focused on tightening immigration, and showed a conspicuous anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant bias. The welfare state would have pride of place, but outsiders would be frowned upon.
The DPP, in other words, sounded much like an incarnation of Social Democrats, at least on social and economic policy. They strongly opposed any increases in the legal retirement age, they advocated for lower taxes for low wage earners, and they promoted better labour conditions.
Disaffected Social Democratic voters could find a temporary home in the DPP. Knowing this, Frederiksen was always careful to keep the DPP close, mindful of any future power arrangements. "In Denmark," she claimed in 2017, "you are entitled to almost all benefits from Day One. It's a difficult system when large numbers of people come into the country."
In 2019, Frederiksen was handed a pre-election gift by her opponent. Prime Minister Rasmussen was keen to shake off some of the more influential rightist groups that might have participated in his future government. The New Right and Stram Kurs, for instance, were not going to be "realistic" partners in any conservative bloc. The day before the election, he said, "If there's a blue majority tomorrow, I feel convinced that it would include parties that I will not accommodate."
Rasmussen saw his situation mirrored for his Social Democrat opponents. Should the progressives do well in the elections, Frederiksen would have to share power with parties of the far left.. "The alternative is there will be no blue majority. And then we have a situation in which a Social Democratic prime ministerial candidate must accommodate the far left. Neither option is in Denmark's interests." His desired outcome? A partnership with the Social Democrats that pushed out the extreme wings of both sides. This tactic, however, lacked wings, and never took off. Fellow conservatives gave it the thumbs-down.
The next day, Frederiksen found herself able to muster the numbers for a red bloc, though its exact shape is still a work-in-progress. Denmark has confirmed its status as a political mutation: a welfare state sharply sceptical about refugees. What this says about social democracy is significant: to be relevant, argues Frederiksen, the movement must be able to "appeal to those who are most strongly affected by the challenges of the future and the changes in our society". If this priority demands dry tear ducts and a hardening of the heart towards outsiders, then so be it.