Denmark: A New government, but still an austerity majority

Finally after ten years the right-wing government consisting of Venstre (Liberals), the Conservatives and with support from outside by the populist, racist Danish Peoples Party (DF) was defeated in the elections on September 15.  The result is very mixed one which will lead to a very turbulent political situation in Denmark.

Venstre, the main right-wing party gained a little compared to the last elections, mainly because of the complete collapse of the Conservatives, the traditional party of big business, who were reduced to being the smallest party in parliament with 4.9% of the votes, only half the votes they received last time. Also the Danish People’s Party lost a little mainly because they have been part of all the attacks on the workers and poor during the last ten years. A new, but not consolidated party, called the Liberal Alliance won 5% of the votes.

The negotiations to form a coalition around a “government programme” are still going on, but it seems it will be formed very soon. The most likely perspective is that a government will be formed by the Social Democrats, the Socialist People’s Party (SF) and the centre-left party, that for obscure historical reasons is called the Radical Left (but which is neither radical nor left-wing). Denmark has a tradition of minority governments being formed on the basis of parliamentary support from outside – this SD-SF-RL government will be supported from the outside by the most left-wing party in parliament, the Unity List.

Many workers and youth were jubilant after the defeat of the right-wing government, but the victory is a bitter sweet one. The victory for the opposition is as narrow as could be and the new government is facing massive problems even before it has been formed. Even though the “opposition” won the elections, there is still a majority in parliament based on an austerity programme.

This situation poses massive challenges for the leaders of the workers’ parties: the Social Democrats, the Socialist People’s Party and the Unity List.

The Radical Left party – a bourgeois party

The Radical Left party is a bourgeois party, that sugar-coats its right-wing economic policies with so-called “progressive” policies on immigration and the environment. They are demanding that the coming Social Democratic lead government must have a “responsible”, i.e. right-wing, economic policy.

In the spring, before the elections, the Radical Left reached an agreement with the then right-wing government concerning a pension “reform” which heavily attacks early retirement and raises the age of retirement for new-borns to 73! This agreement was not voted on before the elections, but now there is still a majority in parliament in favour of this agreement, and the Radical Left is demanding that it become a part of the new government programme. And this is just the beginning. They are against a whole range of small reforms the Social Democrats and SF had suggested before the elections, such as a proposed tax on millionaires, more taxes on the banks, etc., and they also want to keep in place the massive attack on unemployment benefits that the right-wing government introduced in the spring. The leaders of the Radical Left have stated it clearly: the economic situation is very serious, and this attack on pensions is only the beginning.

Their class character was clear when one of the first things they did after the elections were called was to form an alliance with the Conservatives, to work for a “broad co-operation” across the centre after the elections, to put “a stop to bloc-politics”.

The Radical Left managed to increase its votes massively at the elections. This is a major blow for the Danish workers, but the blame for this is solely to be put on the shoulders of the leaders of the Danish workers’ parties, especially the SD and SF. The Radical Left party has always been used by the Social Democratic leadership as an excuse not to pursue a workers’ policy once in government, the latest example being in the 1990s. Ever since the Stauning government in the 1930s the Social Democratic leadership has considered it its task to defend Capitalism. The Radical Left has been used like a lightning rod to defuse the pressure coming from the Social Democratic rank-and-file and the trade unions. The Social Democratic leadership has always rebuffed criticism from the rank-and-file with the excuse that, ”we would very much like to put forward a workers’ policy but in consideration of our collaborators, the Radical Left, we have to make a compromise…” etc. Thus the Social Democratic leadership did their utmost to make sure that the outcome of the elections would not be a workers’ majority of SD, SF and the Unity List alone, but that the Radical Left would be required to form a new government. This was quite risky strategy that almost led to the opposition losing and that now puts the workers’ parties in a very uncomfortable situation.

The leadership of the SF has, just like the Social Democratic right-wing, concluded that they need the Radical Left in the new government and they have been just as eager to defend the idea of a “broad co-operation across the centre”, i.e. class collaboration. Had the SD and SF clearly stated that the Radical Left is a bourgeois party and that they would not co-operate with them after the elections, it is clear the Radical Left would have received far fewer votes. Many of those who voted for the Radical Left did so in spite of their economic policies. They wanted a new government and were repulsed by the right-wing turn on immigration policies of the SD and SF in recent years.

Had the leadership of the SD and SF from the very beginning said, “We will only be able to provide a new government if the workers’ parties gain an outright a majority”, the Radical Left would have been decimated and there would clearly had been a possibility for a workers’ government of the SD, SF and the Unity List. Instead what we have now is a situation where the workers’ parties will be decimated if they go into government with the Radical Left, in the same way that we saw the Social Democrats lose heavily after being in a coalition government with the Radicals in the 1990s.

The leadership of the SD and SF had prepared this rather uncomfortable bed by embracing the idea of “broad co-operation” across the centre, and this means that those who are going to be forced to pay are the working class.

Leaders of The Unity List, SF and Radical Left sharing a stage at COP15 conference in 2009 - Photo: PechkeLeaders of The Unity List, SF and Radical Left sharing a stage at COP15 conference in 2009 - Photo: Pechke With the Radical Left within the new government it will be impossible to apply a workers’ policy. A section of the bourgeoisie clear had the strategy of creating the conditions by which a government of the Social Democrats, the SF and as large a Radical Left parliamentary group as possible. These bourgeois agents within the left camp, the Radicals, have the role of making sure that the workers’ parties discredit themselves and thereby pave the way for a new, stronger and more right-wing government in the future. The Radicals want a new government with the Social Democratic leader Helle Thorning as prime minister, but they also want to co-operate with the right-wing parties on a right-wing economic policy. They want to continue the austerity policies but with a new Prime Minister and thereby reduce the workers’ parties to a position of subservience.

It is clear that the less than expected votes for both the SD and the SF this process of discrediting had already started before the election and it will only further increase during the new government if the Radicals get their way. If the SD and SF leaderships wish to avoid further discrediting themselves they must stop co-operating with the Radical Left and put forward a clear programme for improving welfare and undo the attacks on unemployment benefits and pensions and repeal past privatisations. If the Radicals then still accept Helle Thorning as prime minister, with such policies, then they are welcome to support the government. If on the other hand they should refuse – which would in such an event be the most likely scenario – they would be exposed for the right-wing opportunist party they really are. Unfortunately this is not the line of the top SD and SF leaders at the present time.

Clear radicalisation

Helle Thorning will be prime minister, but on the back of the worst elections for the Social Democrats since 1903, with only 24.9% of the votes, a decline of 0,6 percentage points on the previous elections. The Social Democrats did not succeed in convincing anyone during the election campaign that they actually would be able to solve any of the problems of the Danish workers. Together with the SF they had put forward their big plan, the so-called “Fair Solution”, which included getting everybody to work an extra hour per week, or “twelve minutes per day”. In city councils where they already had a majority they had carried out massive cuts in schools, nurseries, etc., and in many of those towns and areas the vote for the Social Democrats went down.

Villy Søvndal, leader of SF - Photo: Own_workVilly Søvndal, leader of SF - Photo: Own_work There is also the fact that many still remember the Social Democratic Nyrup-government of the 1990s and their cuts in welfare, early retirement and privatisations. It was clear already during the election campaign that Helle Thorning would continue on from the same political line of the 1990s but this time in conditions of economic crisis where there is no favourable economic conjuncture that can help with problems such as unemployment. The Social Democratic rank and file, on the other hand, do not want a continuation of the austerity; they want policies that meet the interests of workers and so long as the leadership continues with the present right-wing turn, the party will go from one historically bad election to another. If you look at the specific votes cast for individual candidates it is clear that the leadership within the Social Democratic party has lost support. According to, on September 17 the four highest placed Social Democratic leaders on the ballot papers lost a total of more than 27,600 personal votes compared to the election in 2007. Helle Thorning-Schmidt lost almost a third (16,362) of her personal votes.

The election result was in fact a clear rejection of the economic plan put forward by the leaderships of the SD and SF, of their “Fair Solution” – that had nothing fair in it – and of the cuts and not least of the attack on the working week that was part of the plan.

The SF suffered what can only be described as an outright election defeat winning only 9.3 percent of the votes, down 3.8 percentage points on the last election. This setback is compounded by the fact that the SF in several opinion polls in 2010 was shown to be at 20%. It is clear that their turn to the right and their standing together with the right wing in the leadership of the Social Democratic Party has completely failed and must be abandoned immediately. If the leadership of the party continues on this course and even more so if they join a government with the Radicals, not only will the decline continue but, even more importantly, the SF will have disappointed the hundreds of thousands of workers and youth who looked to the party as defenders of the welfare state and of their interests in general.

One of the SF MPs, Ida Auken, the day after the election explained to the journal Information, “We have paid the price for creating a real alternative to a government we had to change.” The truth is that the SF has put its own political principles to one side in order to get into government – and that is what the SF is now being punished for. It is a general rule that when there are two workers’ parties that in the eyes of ordinary workers have more or less the same policies it is always the bigger of the two that tends to win at the expense of the smaller one. Workers correctly ask themselves the question as to why should they be in the smaller of the two parties if it is the same policy?

In the recent local elections in Norway the frightening real prospects that the SF may be facing in the near future were revealed by its sister party, the Sosialistisk Venstreparti (SV). In the local elections at beginning of September the SV fell from 6% to 4%. Earlier they had won the same level of votes as the SF but have declined since entering government in 2005 with the Arbeiterpartiet (Social Democrats) and the Centre Party. As we had warned earlier, the huge success of the SF was achieved despite the turn to the right of the leadership. They achieved their past successes because the party was seen as an alternative to the Social Democrats. However, the more it became clear they were not putting forward any real alternative the more their support fell. The SF party secretary Villy Søvndal also suffered a massive loss in personal votes. In these elections he received less than half of what he had in the previous election. Now he is barely within the top 20, whereas before he was one of the most popular politicians.

This recent electoral setback together with the coming participation in government will bring all the accumulated tensions existing within the party to the surface in an explosive manner. An important discussion that has to be concluded at the congress in the spring will be on the need renew the party programme. All the thousands who joined the SF and voted for the party did not do so to get a party that, when it comes down to it, continues with the policies of the former government.

In the elections we saw a clear radicalisation has taken place within Danish society with a historical election result for the Unity List. They had won 2.2% at the last elections and this time they jumped to 6.7%. The Unity List significantly increased its vote precisely because they stood out in the election as the only alternative to the left and their historic result also underlines the radicalisation that has been taking place below the surface in Danish society in recent years. With one exception – in 1987 – the parties standing to the left of the Social Democrats have never won so many votes as in this election and the parties to the left of the SF (such as the Communist Party and minor splits from the SF) have only achieved such a good a result once before – in 1977.

In Copenhagen the Unity List won more votes than the SF in all the constituencies except one and in three (Nørrebro, Vesterbro and the Inner City) the Unity List became the biggest party of all with 27.6 % (SD: 16,2 % and SF: 15,2%), 22,8%, (SD: 17,4 %, SF: 14%) and 18,3 %, (S: 13,8 %, SF: 11,6 %) respectively. Also in the other larger cities the Unity List vote went up and the SF lost votes.

This big success for the Unity List and the prospects of the new government will raise big questions in the coming period. The leadership of the Unity List has embarked on the same road as the leadership of the SF, which for example was shown clearly in their support for the NATO bombings of Libya. Again and again, the Unity List will face the choice between accepting cuts or voting against the new government. Johanne Schmidt Nielsen, leader of the Unity List, has made it very clear that the Unity List is under no circumstances going to bring down this government. The leadership of the Unity List has focussed everything on the parliamentary struggle and based itself only on winning parliamentary seats rather than building bases in the workplaces, schools and universities. The party will be faced with a dilemma in the coming period and the limitations of this strategy will be exposed. Several times during the elections Nielsen was asked by reporters about the Party programme and its calls for nationalisations of the big companies, etc. These questions she mostly rejected as smear campaigns on the part of the media. No doubt the media were trying to mount such a campaign, but they also provided a great opportunity to explain the party programme and make it known to a broader layer of people, instead of accepting the media “dogma” that the call for nationalisations frightens away voters.

In the coming period big struggles will open up inside the party as to whether the role of the party is to act as mainly a parliamentary based left reformist party or a revolutionary party where parliamentary work only acts as an auxiliary to the party’s participation in the class struggle.

A government with dynamite built into its foundations

Whether or not the Radicals ends up participating in the government – which is still the most likely outcome – what we will have is a government with dynamite built into its foundations. On the one hand the main workers’ parties alone do not have a majority, but on the other neither do the SD and SF with the Radicals. If they wish to form a majority without the Unity List they need the Conservatives and/or Venstre, Liberal Alliance or the Danish People’s Party.

The pressure piling up on the new government is already huge from all sides of society. In parliament there is still a majority for massive counter-reforms such as attacks on early retirement, pensions, unemployment benefits, etc. The Radicals and the employers are already pushing for this majority to be used to carry out such attacks. The Radicals have already stated on television that the raising of the age of retirement is far from enough, and that more counter-reforms are needed.

On the other side stand the trade unions that have expressed great concerns about the result. Dennis Kristensen, secretary of the FOA (civil servants’ union), the third largest union in the country, has said that the result is a “muddy” one. It is clear that the raising of the age of retirement is going to be implemented and this will put the union leadership under a lot of pressure from their members, pressure that will grow further when the new government in tri-party negotiations will demand even more from the workers in order to “increase competitiveness”. The new government takes office in the worst world economic crisis since the Second World War; a crisis that is far from over and in fact is worsening at the moment. The deficit in state finances expected next year is already bigger than was anticipated before the elections. In other words Helle Thorning and Villy Søvndal inherit an economy in tatters and there will be need for massive attacks on the working class if they are to meet the needs of a capitalist system in deep crisis. Therefore there will be even more need of a trade union movement that consistently defends the interests of its members. The unions must at the very least start by demanding that the attacks on unemployment benefits are reversed and that they be increased to equal a full wage.

The Danish working class and youth were looking forward to a new government with bated breath. In the workplaces they have accepted layoffs, and increased tempo of work and cuts in wages. They have accepted cuts in welfare in the hope that a new government would make all this better. But the crisis demands that the new government pursue even harsher austerity measures. The working class and youth cannot hold their breath much longer. Under the surface discontent is simmering that will surface in the next period. It will put the new government under massive pressure from several sides and could lead to its early downfall.

The new government’s policy of co-operation between the workers’ parties and a bourgeois party during one of the worst crises in the history of Capitalism means that dynamite has been built into its foundations. It is not possible to bridge the gaping chasm that has opened up between the classes. The workers’ parties will be forced to choose sides and the leaderships of all three parties will be put under massive pressure to pursue a genuine socialist policy or to be replaced.

A struggle will inevitably open up inside the workers’ parties over the political line to be adopted. An opposition must be built inside the workers’ parties, demanding a break with the Radicals, demands that the parties pursue a workers’ policy and that an alliance is created between the workers’ parties to fight for a workers’ government on a socialist programme.