The radical right has been an integrated part of the Danish party system since the 1970s and has been allowed to set the agenda especially on immigration. The mainstream has often depended on their support in government. More recently, the Danish People’s Party (DF) has supported the liberal party in the last period in government 2015 – 2019. Moreover, in last Wednesday’s elections, the DF lost more than half its support. The national as well as international news media has been brimming with excitement over another Scandinavian country bucking the populist right-wing trend in Europe – with the Social Democrats (S) becoming the biggest party (26% share of the vote) and the radical right DF falling to less than 9%.
The next prime minister will be Social Democrat leader, Mette Fredriksen. Fredriksen aims to form a minority government but will need support from several smaller parties on the left. Little media attention is paid to the fact that the biggest party on the left block actually got less votes than in 2015 and that the support they gained was on a platform of xenophobia, tough border controls and welfare chauvinism. The Social Democrats were also very clear and vocal on their plans on combatting climate change. The heightened salience of Green issues, the co-option of radical right policies and an electorate getting worried about two extreme anti-Muslim parties even further to the right can go a long way to explain the result.
Immigration and Coalition Formation
With 26% of the vote, Fredriksen plans to form a minority government but she will need support from smaller parties on the left. S’s policies on immigration, however, are a far cry from the second biggest party on the left; the centre left liberal Radikale Venstre’s (RV). RV led by Morten Østergaard, and the other parties on the left like the Red- Green alliance, the Alternative, and the Socialist People’s party have been campaigning for a more humane immigration policy and oppose S’s line. It will be very difficult for Fredriksen to find common ground with these parties. When announcing she was going to form a minority government on election night Frederiksen said she was going to talk to all parties. But, it is the left who will have majority in parliament as they secured 91 seats and the right has 75.
It is not only on border control and immigration that the Social Democrats has moved to the right in their appeal to win voters back from the radical right. Their high taxation – and high public expenditure welfare – policy is also about restricting immigrants’ rights to welfare in order to be able to maintain the standards for native citizens. The Social Democrats promised better pension rights to manual workers and those who they said needed it the most, who have worked the longest and have made a valuable contribution to society. Fredriksen promises a more equal society that excludes immigrants. She also wants more ‘responsible economic policies’ that seem to contradict her criticism of neoliberalism.
Welfare Chauvinism and the Mainstreaming of the Danish Radical Right
There has long been political consensus on the centre right and left on making demands on immigrants and stopping ‘welfare tourism’ in Denmark. During the ‘refugee crisis’ in 2016, the Social Democrats supported government policies like stripping jewellery from refugees (to pay for welfare) and have later agreed on the burqa and niqab ban as well as supporting the most recent introduction of compulsory handshakes at citizenship ceremonies. Assimilation rather than diversity and multiculturalism is now the Danish social democratic ideal. Repatriation they say, not integration, is their strategy on migration and ‘foreigner policy’. S state that it’s better for refugees to be helped closer to home and in their programme stressed that: ‘one is not a bad human being because one doesn’t want to see ones country becoming dramatically changed. And one isn’t naïve for wanting to help people get a better life. Most want to do both; help people in need and protect Denmark’. Similarly, S’s slogan and programme ‘Lad oss samle Danmark igen’ – ‘let’s unite Denmark again’ – resonates with the radical rights’ mantra about making Denmark Danish again; alluding to a past when things were allegedly much better.
The language used in debates on immigration therefore makes it clear that ‘foreigners’ are a problem especially if they are seen to be a drain on welfare and not seen to be of any value to society. Fredriksen wants of a cap on “non-western immigrants”, asylum seekers to be expelled to reception centres in North Africa, and for all immigrants to be forced to work 37 hours a week in exchange for benefits. In Denmark, a dualistic welfare state has been in operation since 2001 and access to welfare and different levels of deservedness based on ethnicity has been normalised. Most of the electorate on the left agree with it and the social democrats stress they want to strengthen the ‘Danish model’ with a realistic and fair policy on ‘foreigners’ and a better welfare state for the needy and deserving nationals. The assumption is that the welfare state is under pressure and the state has been robbed of billions of kroner by previous governments’ mismanagement has opened up a rhetorical niche for Fredriksen’s populist rhetoric and choice of issues.
The promise to lower the pension age, reform the welfare state and act on global warming worked for the Social Democrats in Denmark and Fredriksen has for a while suggested that other European social democrats should follow suit, especially on migration.
What’s unusual, however, is that Denmark presents an example of where a mainstream party (the Social Democrats) have adapted to radical right policies and managed to lure the electorate back. This seems to be contrary to the theory that co-option of radical right migration policy doesn’t work for the mainstream, and that it should only boost support to the radical right from being legitimised by a mainstream party. It, therefore, worked for Fredriksen as it did for Sarkozy in 2007.
For those who hope for a more left-wing government and a softer line on immigration, however, there is still hope. That is because the smaller parties on the left will most likely demand a change to the social democrats’ hard line on immigration as well as a tough plan on climate change. It would be foolish of Fredriksen to pick up where she left off when reaching out to the radical right in joint interviews with their leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl earlier this year. The defeated Liberal Party’s leader Lars Løkke Rasmussen has also expressed interest in cooperating in government, but so far a grand coalition looks unlikely.
A left wing alliance looks more likely despite massive disagreement on immigration as well as economic strategy. It will be very interesting to see what kind of government finally emerges from negotiations.
Dr Mette Wiggen is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer in Teaching and Scholarship at POLIS, University of Leeds. Her profile can be found here:
© Mette Wiggen. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).