A regular general election in a small country like Denmark do not ordinarily attract significant attention from outsiders. But the 5 June 2019 election did. International attention focused on whether the Danish Social Democrats won, whether they did it by copying the immigration policies of the populist radical right Danish People’s Party who declined from 21 to 9 percent of the votes, and whether this is a pursuable strategy for Social Democrats in the rest of Europe.
Did the Danish Social Democrats win the election? This may be assessed on the basis of one of political science’s classic distinctions between policy, votes and office. While parties are expected ultimately to pursue policies, the means by which this is achieved may vary. Government office is essential for a traditional governing party like the Social Democrats. In their self-understanding, they should hold the keys to the Prime Minister’s office. Hence, even if their electoral support did not increase, they, together with the parties, which support a Social Democratic prime minister, command a majority. And that is regarded as a win (under the assumption that a Social Democratic led government is formed, which is currently pending). Bloc votes and government office is decisive for the Social Democrats’ success. Increasing the party’s own vote share comes second.
Turning to the policies, the Social Democrats have in the 2015-2019 election period moved rightwards on immigration policies. They have not completely copied the policies of the Danish People’s Party but supported the policies pursued by the Liberal led government, which are heavily influenced by the Danish People’s Party. Immigration has been a salient issue in most Danish elections since the turn of the century, and in the eyes of the Social Democrats, a tight immigration policy is supported by a majority of Danes and hence a condition for getting into office. Whether it is (classic) social democratic policy or not is not for me to decide. It is the policies of the Danish Social Democratic party.
Did the Danish Social Democrats win votes from the Danish People’s Party, and was it due to the immigration policies? Before hard evidence in the form of electoral studies is available, we have to do with opinion polls. Epinion for DR show that the Social Democrats did attract voters who in 2015 voted for the Danish People’s Party around 10 percent. Anecdotal evidence such as interviews with voters and media coverage would suggest that it is not only due to the tighter immigration policies but also its initiative on early retirement. However, the Social Democrats was not the only party to take Danish People’s Party voters. Two new right-wing, very anti-immigration parties, gained 4.2 percent of the votes, of which most came from the Danish People’s Party. Most importantly, the Liberals also took a chunk (1/4) of the Danish People’s Party 2015 electorate, and it remains to be seen whether the Liberals simply took back the voters they lost to the Danish People’s Party in 2015. In sum, Danish People’s Party lost not only to the Social Democrats.
In addition, the Social Democrats may not be interested in a decline for the Danish People’s Party. This requires a bit longer explanation. Denmark has a multiparty system, where the 8-11 parties traditionally have aligned on one line. The parties are divided into two blocs, the center-left red bloc backing the Social Democratic party leader as Prime Minister, and the center-right blue bloc backing the Liberal party leader as Prime Minister. However, the linear alignment has been challenged slightly recently. To explain this, I go back to the mid-1990s where Danish electoral research identified two dimensions among Danish voters: The traditional, economic, redistributive left-right based on attitude towards taxation, public sector size and social welfare. The new dimension, in Danish termed ‘value’ politics, is based on attitude towards immigration, law and order, and environmental concern. Parties have aligned basically on one line from left on both to right-leaning on both. However, in particular two parties now stand out. First of all, the Danish People’s Party is, and has never been, rightwing on the economic dimension. Hence, the ‘radical right’ term might for some be confusing. In the 2015-2019 government period, where they have provided the parliamentary majority for the Liberal led government, their opposition to tax cuts and more center placed economic program have been more apparent. Second, the Social Liberals, who are more to the right on the economy but among the most left-wing parties on the ‘values’ dimension – they are pro-immigration, pro-environmental concern and anti-stricter sentences for crime. Hence, these two parties are challenging the alignment.
This is relevant when interpreting the result of the Danish election in 2019. With the rightward turn of the Social Democrats on the immigration policies and the leftward turn of the Danish People’s Party on welfare these two parties have approached each other. The two party leaders have talked about future collaboration on both immigration and welfare issues. The option of collaborating with the Danish People’s Party left the Social Democrats less tied to the parties on their own ‘red bloc’, who are more left-wing in particular on the immigration issues but also on the other issues on the ‘value’ dimension. In particular the Social Liberals can be a challenge to the Social Democrats since they are more to the right on the economic dimension, and in many ways want economic policies like those of the blue bloc, but at the same time much more pro-immigration. The Social Democrats was not necessarily favoring a demolishing of the Danish People’s Party.
The Danish case alone cannot answer the question of whether it is a successful strategy for European Social Democratic parties to copy (parts of) the immigration policy of the populist radical right parties. But it shows what happened in Denmark anno 2019 and hence may drizzle some nuance to the vital comparative studies of electoral behavior, party policies and coalition formation across parties, countries and time.