Denmark – the EU Parliamentary Elections: Borgen Edition

Denmark had originally been reticent to join the EU and had joined the competing European Free Trade Area, along with several other states including the UK. Denmark’s economy was, at this point, very linked to the UK’s and so when the UK changed track and decided to join the then EEC Denmark followed. When France’s President, Charles de Gaulle, vetoed UK membership, Denmark withdrew its bid, and then when the UK applied to join a second time, Denmark also applied to join again, joining as part of the first ever expansion of the European Economic Community with the UK and Ireland in 1973.

Denmark has historically been one of the more powerful Nordic states, often fighting with Sweden for dominance over the region. Even today there is a strong sense of competitiveness between Sweden and Denmark. While the two are separated by a thin strait of water, known as the øresund, there is now a bridge over it.

The Nordic region is famed for the strength of its Social Democratic model and parties. The Nordic regions never developed serfdom (indeed, serfdom in much of the rest of Europe was a defence from Vikings). Hence, Nordic peasants came to be unusually wealthy, educated and politically powerful. Early forms of deliberative representation known as Tings (literal translation: ‘thing’) formed early on in the history of Nordic states. Even now, the parliament of Denmark is known, rather pleasingly, as the Folketing (lit. ‘The People’s Thing’).

When the industrial revolution began this educated and politically involved proletariat rapidly formed powerful trade union and agrarian movements to represent their interests. In 2010 the OECD recorded Denmark as having the second highest trade union density, after Finland, with 68.5% of the workforce in a union compared to an OECD average of 17.6%.

The strength of the trade union movement formed the basis of the Nordic Social Democratic parties. From 1924 until 2001 the Danish Social Democrats were the largest party in every election for the Folketing.

Recent years have seen the Social Democrats, weaken, however, and a polarisation of the party system into two blocs of parties, the centre-left ‘Red Bloc’ and the centre-right ‘Blue Bloc’. The system has now attained a certain majoritarian aspect. For instance, a vote for the Liberal Alliance is de facto a vote for a Venstre-led government and for Venstre’s leader, Lars Lokke Rasmussen to become Prime Minister because both parties are blue bloc members and Venstre is the largest member party in the blue bloc. In the 2013 election, the Red Bloc won 50.2% of the vote to 49.3% for the Blue Bloc, underlining just how few parties exist outside the Bloc system (none in parliament).

Despite this, Denmark’s social democratic model still remains intact, successful and broadly popular. Indeed, centre-right parties have become popular partially due to their aping of traditional social democratic discourse and policy. Denmark’s taxes remain the highest in the world, according to a 2011 study by Eurostat. The Danish welfare state is often named by Danes as the thing that makes them proudest to be Danish.

Danes often poll as the happiest country in the world. In 2013 they were joint best in the world (with New Zealand) in the Corruption Perceptions Index. They rank 4th in the world in the Economist’s Democracy Index (Behind Norway, Sweden and Iceland). Denmark is one of the world’s most equal countries, and according to the International Monetary Fund, ranks 6th in the world for GDP per Capita. Denmark is one of the few countries in the world where election turnouts are not in decline, and the 2011 election saw a turnout of 87.7% turnout, a figure that most countries without compulsory voting can only dream of.

That is not to say that Denmark is without problems however – the welfare state is under increasing strain, and the world economic crisis has forced the Danish government into austerity measures. The Danish unemployment rate is now 6.7%, lower than most other European states but high considering that it was as low as 3.1% before the crisis hit. There is also increasing concern about the education system. In the most recent PISA tests from the OECD Denmark came joint 22nd, only just beating the OECD average. Perhaps most worryingly, Danish 15 year olds actually performed worse than their predecessors three years previously.

Denmark has also been under strain over immigration and integration. As much as 5% of the country may now be Muslim, one of the highest percentages in Europe. For a formerly ethnically homogenous country this is something of a shock, and immigration has become a huge issue in the country. Between 2001 and 2011 the governing coalition was dependent upon the support of the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party. Denmark is often considered to have the most restrictive immigration laws in Europe and the country has been polarised over events like the Danish cartoons controversy. That said, Denmark has had a very thorough, honest and frank national debate about immigration.

Denmark has historically been thought of as a rather Eurosceptic country. The Danes rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum in 1992. The treaty was passed in 1993, but only after the EU gave Denmark four opt-outs from the EU treaty on citizenship, defence, justice and home affairs and the Euro. The Danes rejected the Euro in another referendum in 2000. Holding a fresh referendum on abolishing these opt-outs is a goal of both the previous and current government. In 2011 the Danish government reintroduced border controls despite being a member of the supposedly borderless Schengen Area (the new centre-left government subsequently rolled back this decision on its first day in office).

Despite, or, perhaps, because of this, Eurobarometer polls show the Danes as most likely to say that their voice counts in the EU. This may also be because of the Folketing’s vigorously powerful European Affairs Committee, even more empowered by the fact that Danish governments are usually minorities and hence cannot control parliamentary committees through whipping.

Electoral System

Denmark elects 13 MEPs in a single national constituency. Denmark uses party-list proportional representation to elect its MEPs, with parties generally receiving seats in proportion to their vote.

Denmark, unusually, gives parties the option of whether to rank their candidates, or leave them equally ranked. In practice almost all parties choose to equally rank their candidates, but to give them a ranking on the ballot paper. Voters have the option of casting a vote for either a party, or for a candidate within that party. A vote for a candidate counts as a vote for the party as well, but the candidates with the most preference votes are first in line for seats. By ranking candidates on the ballot paper parties give a suggested ordering to voters but leave the final decision up to them.  In practice, however, the lead candidate for each party usually wins the most votes and is easily elected, provided the party wins a seat.

The small number of seats and Denmark’s use of the D’Hondt formula to assign seats to parties tends to advantage larger parties, and so Danish electoral law allows the formation of electoral pacts, where parties may pool their votes together in the count.

In theory there is a 2% electoral threshold that parties must pass to win seats but in reality no party achieving this score is ever likely to win a seat anyway due to the low number of seats.

This year’s election will happen on the same day as a referendum on entry into the Unified Patent Court, which establishes a pan-European patent court.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
Social Democrats Socialists and Democrats 21.5% 4
Venstre Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 20.2% 3
Socialist People’s Party (SF) European Green Party 15.9% 2
Danish People’s Party (DF) Europe of Freedom and Democracy 15.3% 2
Conservative People’s Party European People’s Party 12.7% 1
People’s Movement Against the EU European United Left/Nordic Green Left 7.2% 1
Radikale Venstre Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 4.3% 0
Liberal Alliance None 0.6% 0

Likely results

The Danish European elections occur in the context of a woefully unpopular and unstable government in the middle of its electoral term. The elections will be seen within the prism of ‘red bloc’ versus ‘blue bloc’. It is already clear that Venstre will almost certainly come first, the People’s Party may shock observers by pipping the Social Democrats to second. The one poll on the EP elections, released on the 22nd of February, shows the Social Democrats and People’s Party both on 21%. It shows Radikale Venstre regaining its lost seat, and the Socialist People’s Party holding onto theirs. There is little sign of growth in the People’s Movement’s favour which is likely to be a saving grace for the governing parties at least.

Nonetheless, the possibility to a low turnout (turnout in 2009 was 59%, compared to 88% in the most recent parliamentary election) can only serve to hurt the Red Bloc parties.