Thursday, October 13, 2005

Danish politics

Given that we will be commenting a great deal on Danish politics, Ive thought it opportune to throw in a bit of background on our political systems and the parties that inhabit it.

First, a small bit about parliament:

Denmark was an absolute monarchy until 1849, when the first democratically elected parliament gathered. Experimenst with democracy on a local scale had started in the 1830s, but it took the upheaval of the 1848 revolutions to bring it up on a national scale.

For the first 100 years as a democracy, Denmark had a two-chamber parliament much like Germany, the US or Great Britain. The constitution didnt consider parties, and it took a few decades for parties to form along the lines as we know today, comparably stable and well-defined groups of people with somewhat shared views.

During the last 3 decades of the 1800s, the conservative party Højre (literally "Right") became locked in battle with the liberal party Venstre (litterally "Left") and, seeing its majority in the lower chamber steadly dwindling, resorted to using its majority in the upper chamber and the support it received from the conservative king to block Venstre power and govern by decree much of the time.

When Right representation had dwindled to 8 members in the 114-member lower chamber, the king finally gave in and backed a Left government in 1901 (rumor has it the reason was that Venstre was blocking any attempts at paying a dowry for two of his granddaughters unless they were handed power). This also entailed the institution of parliamentarism (that you cant govern against a majority in parliament) as a guiding principle, and by the revision of the Danish constitution in 1915 the virtual neutering of the upper chamber. It languished for another four decades before being abolished in the 1950s.

The chamber left, Folketinget - "The People´s Assembly" - today consists of 175 members elected in Denmark proper and two each elected in the north Atlantic possessions of Greenland and the Faeroe Islands. The latter four members represent their own Greenland-only and Faeroe-only parties, some of whom are pro-independence, and they seldomly, due to their small numbers, have any real impact. The exception to the rule is the 1998-election, when it was 300 votes cast on the Faeroes that provided the last MP needed for the incumbent Social Democrat/Radical government to continue.

The MPs themselves today are apportioned to the various parties proportionally according to the number of votes they get. As a consequence, the Folketing is always populated by a plethora of different parties, in the last couple decades ranging in number between 7 and 11. After the last election in February, the number came down to 7 with the failure of the Christian Democrats in convincing the electorate that they were not inconsequential vote-waste.

The development of the party systems (leaving out small, short-lived parties) looks like this:
The original constitution of Denmark didnt consider the possibility of parties, only elected individuals, and they (parties) only began developing under the impression of the struggle between conservatives and liberals in the latter part of the 1800s. The conservatives quickly formed into the party Right (Højre), while the liberals coagulated into a plethora of groups under the general heading "Left" (Venstre).

With the formation of a Social Democratic party from the 1870s, the stock parties of Danish politics were there. It also began the steady formation of more and more parties to the left of the party Left, that would prove the partys name wrong several times over.

Fragmentation started in 1905, when smallholders and urban intellectuals split off from Venstre to form Det Radikale Venstre (Radical Left, or just Radicals). Next came the Communists, who split off from the Social Democrats following WWI. Disregarding numerous smaller, primarily rightwing, parties that have since gone out of existence, it continued like this until 1958, when the Communists began their history of splits, and the result was the Socialist People´s Party.

Officially, it was the "democratic" elements that split off after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, but given the 2-year lag, and the fact that it was the very same people who had witnessed Stalins purges without complaining that now suddenly professed to be virtual innocents, this can be safely discounted

The Watershed-election in 1973 (so named because new parties received almost a third of the number of MPs) produced the Progress party that, after shedding its (economically) ultra-liberal elements in the 1990s evolved into the Danish Peoples Party - essentially social democrats with an anti-immigration agenda.

Otherwise, the Communists dissolved into a plethora of smaller parties, that didnt come together until after the collapse of the Soviet Block, calling their new creation the Unity List. Up through the 90s, they have then mostly disbanded, making the List into a party in itself.

With the loss of representation of some other products of the Watershed-election (the Center Democrats and Christian Democrats), the number of parties represented in parliament (again discounting the 4 northern Atlantic members) fell to its current 7. They are thefollowing, ranged as they normally are from left to right in the political spectrum:

Unity ListSocialist People´s Party ("SF" after its Danish abbreviation)
Social Democats
Radical Left ("The Radicals)
Conservative People´s Party ("The Conservatives")
Left - Denmark´s Liberal Party ("Left")
Danish People´s Party

The sequence is deceiving, though: The Conservatives and Liberals have formed the government since 2001, and to retain power the Liberals have moved more and more to the left, taking much of the Social Democrats´ positions on especially welfare policy. At the same time, the Danish People´s Party has finished the process it started in the 90s to transform itself from an ultra-liberalist party into, essentially, the Social Democrats with an anti-immigration agenda. To guard against a flight of its voters to the Danish People´s Party, the Social Democrats have themselves moved right, taking on some of the anti-ammigration stance of that party.

To compensate a bit for this rush to the centre, the Conservatives have tried to pair their pro-welfare policy with pro-business stances, while the fundamentalist humanist Radicals have moved to the right economically.

The result of all this, however, is that all the choice one has amongthese seven parties is between two radical left-parties (Unity List and Socialist People´s Party) and five different shades of socialdemocracy.

Right now, that works out fine, but the problem is that while everybody knows that reforms are needed to ward off eventual collapse of the welfare state due to the rising number of the elderly, nobody dares to actually do much about it. In the 1998 election, Social Democratic allegations that the rightwing parties wanted to raise rent limits lost the rightwing parties the elections, and in the 2001 election, the reform of pre-retirement pensions that the Social Democrats pulled through was widely seen as having cost them the election.

So, as you can see, the Danish political system is somewhat of a mess. As the saying went about the parties in the People´s Assemby in the late 90s:
- The Unity List is not one, but three parties
- The Socialist People´s Party has nothing to do with the people
- The Radicals are the most moderate
- The Christian People´s Party is recruiting moslems
- The party Left is actually rightwing
- The Conservatives are the most pro-change, and
- The Progress has been nothing but re-gressing since its foundation

Welcome to our world.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the information on how the Danish political system works. It sounds worse than what we put up with in the US. Our parties have changed over the years as well. The Democratic party has changed the most, becoming increasingly socialist in many of the platforms.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Henrik said...

You are welcome. I thought a rundown was wanted, given that few (if any) know Denmark as anything else than the capital of Sweden :-)


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