|Despite the Social Democrats polling poorly, Helle Thorning-Schmidt is Denmark’s new prime minister [EPA]
Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the leader of the Danish Social Democrats, is now officially the country’s first female prime minister. She sounded confident while addressing a crowed media corps and members of the public who had gathered to celebrate the new Danish government.
“We have the strongest team to get Denmark safely through the crisis,” she said. “We will work on the issues. This is not a government that thinks it has all the answers. We will get our work clothes on from day one.”
Strong parliamentary norms ensure that the agreements made are respected. Denmark has only very few examples of legislative agreements which have been broken.
With a royal stamp on her new government, Schmidt says she is looking forward to getting started in her new role. The government consists of 23 ministers from three different parties. This includes the youngest minister ever, Thor Möger Pedersen – aged 26. He is the new tax minister, and a huge responsibility awaits the young career politician.
A nervous euphoria marks the ascendance of the new government in this Scandinavian constitutional monarchy – a country smaller than the US state of West Virginia.
The elections results announced on September 15 gave the Social Democrats’ coalition a narrow victory, ending a decade of the Liberal Conservative alliance in power. The new government brings together a disparate “red bloc” after a voter backlash over the economic downturn.
“The Liberals actually won seats in the election and is by now the largest party in parliament. The blue block lost the election primarily because of a catastrophic election result for the Conservatives who lost half of their seats in parliament,” election expert Helene Helboe Pedersen of the University of Aarhus told Al Jazeera.
Schmidt told the electorate: “We have a majority and we will use that majority.”
Denmark has 179 members of parliament and is characterised by minority governments.
“Since 1945 no single party has won a majority in an election and most of the governments formed has either been single party minority governments or coalition minority governments,” Pedersen explains. So the new government is little different to those in the past.
“I expect a minority coalition consisting of the Social Democrats, The Socialist Peoples Party and the Social Liberals.“
– Helene Helboe Pedersen, Danish election expert
“Before the election, nine parties were represented in parliament, but the Christian Democrats lost their single MP in this election, so now eight parties are represented,” noted Pedersen.
As expected, the red-green alliance became the king makers.
“The victory of the red bloc was not convincing. The pre-electoral coalition, consisting of the Social Democrats and the Socialist Peoples’ Party lost seats, whereas the red-green alliance had a historic election, winning 12 seats in parliament,” Pedersen told Al Jazeera.
Critics say the parties resemble each other as never before. Hence, the financial markets generally did not react negatively to Denmark’s election. The party system in the country is “primarily ordered along the tradition left-right (or economic) dimension. The members of the new alliance have moved closer to the centre of the main policy-dimension,” Pedersen explains.
Danish expert Henrik Qvortrup, a political commentator and spin doctor to former prime minister (and now NATO chief) Anders Fogh Rasmussen, goes a step further stating that Schmidt has become prime minister, despite the worst party election result in 100 years.
“The voters haven’t elected Thorning-Schmidt, they have de-elected the government of Loekke Rasmussen,” he said.
Ordinary citizens also expressed similar sentiments.
“I cast my vote hoping that the right-wing coalition would lose,” says a very excited Ahmad Hassan. He voted for the Social Democrats.
“They are more sympathetic to us foreigners. And they might not go as far in their welfare cuts. We have been at the receiving end of the strict austerity and anti-immigrant policies in Denmark over the past two decades.”
Living “at the bottom of the barrel”, the asylum seeker and refugee communities were first in line to face the multiple cuts in public spending introduced in the early 1990s – and which escalated when the blue bloc government rose to power.
Ahmad, a graduate in the social sciences is still looking for a job – despite many failed applications. “It’s hard sometimes,” he told me in a recent visit to Denmark.
As a Danish-Arab youth he says he has fewer chances to “make it”. Employment opportunities are limited, he told me. Last year he was given an internship at the municipality of a small town in Denmark. His task was to help local authorities implement their outreach projects for integration of migrant communities.
Six months passed and he was commended on his work. Yet, when a vacancy came up doing exactly that job, he was sidelined. A Danish graduate from Copenhagen was given the job – despite having no previous experience, Ahmad recalls.
This, however, does not deter Ahmad and many young immigrants who find themselves caught between their ambitions and recurrent rejections by employers.
Blow to the far right
The anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, which backed Loekke Rasmussen’s bloc, saw its support slip three seats, giving it 22 lawmakers in parliament. Some interpret this as a blow to the far right.
“The huge challenge for the future prime minister is to bring the red-green alliance together with the Social Liberals. These parties are strange bedfellows.
The red green alliance wants taxes to be increased and the social programs to be more generous.
The Social Liberals wants tax cuts and less generous social programs. These two parties agree on immigration policy, but the Social Democrats have promised the voters to stick to the immigration policy of the former government. Hence, the cooperation within the main parliamentary coalition is very difficult to establish“
– Helene Helboe Pedersen, Danish election expert
Nonetheless, the leader of the Danish People’s Party, Pia Kjaersgaard, vowed on national television that her party would be a “tough” opposition party.
The Green alliance, meanwhile, has called for a halt to what the party perceives as “brutal and bureaucratic” rules for foreigners living in Denmark.
Every fifth voter was undecided during the election campaign itself – with many traditionally key dividing issues sidelined. Khaled, a Danish film maker, told Al Jazeera: “The real surprise is that this is the first time in over twenty years where immigrants are not at the centre of the election campaign in Denmark.”
Following the Norway massacre committed by Anders Breivik, “it is rather the right wing parties who are under scrutiny”, he noted.
Nevertheless, right wing policies and their grip on Danish politics are unshakable, Ahmad fears.
The far right, represented by the Danish People’s Party, has dominated Danish politics for more than a decade, agreed Khalid. Many wonder whether the numerous laws restricting immigration to Denmark – some of which violate international norms – will be reversed. The strict “24-year” rule – under which non-resident spouses can only be united with their partners living in Denmark if they are both over 24 years of age – will not be scrapped, but cosmetic changes are expected in an attempt to make the law less bureaucratic.
On the economic front, the new government’s agenda includes comprehensive taxation reforms. The tax burden, especially environmental taxes, will shift to consumers. However, the promised higher taxation of millionaires looks unlikely to become a reality.
In a visit to Denmark during the election campaign, I had the chance to participate in several discussions with Ahmad and his peers. I sensed then that even though they were intending to vote for the red-green coalition, they were still apprehensive about the track record of the Social Democrats.
They cite their experience with the party in the 1990s. Now as then, they did not expect the power shift to yield any major policy changes. The Social Democrats say they refuse to work with the Danish People’s party, and have allied themselves with the Socialist People’s Party; a party that has de-facto moved towards the political centre.
On the issue of immigration, the new government’s agenda will shut down the infamous ministry of integration. It plans to ease the strict rules on asylum and family reunification imposed in the past decade under the auspices of the Danish People’s Party.
In the past ten years, the Social Democrats have found themselves in the opposition. They have failed to prevent deep cuts to in pensions, reductions in student grants, or the deterioration of public healthcare provisions.
Worst performing economy
The red-green government promises now to kick start the Danish economy by spending 10 billion Krone ($1.8bn) on increased public investment. This will mainly go to companies within the climate and energy sectors. More jobs are promised through further public spending.
However, Denmark is understood to be the worst performing economy among the Nordic union countries, following a burst housing bubble that fuelled a banking crisis and limited consumer spending.
“We probably won’t see major changes,” says Pedersen. “Increased investments in education will be financed with higher taxes on, for instance cigarettes and unhealthy food. We will probably also see some increase in so called ‘green taxes’.”
Whether talking to ordinary Danes or watching Danish television debates, it is clear that many fear that their country – once known for its almost utopian welfare state – may no longer exist in the shape or form they knew.
Karen Jensen, a retired laboratory specialist told me that the notions of “collective solidarity” and “equality” were slowly being buried by both conservatives and liberals. Denmark is now shaping its policies on British and US models with regards to its social benefits schemes, education and health services, she says, complaining of the “new and hard times”.
“[The] burden is now on each and every one of us individually. We are forced to take care of our own pensions and healthcare insurances while still on meagre incomes.”
Karen feels that the talk of “efficiency”, “privatisation”, “consumer choice”, and “individual care” is shutting down any reasonable debate about the survival of Denmark’s welfare society.
The hard-won achievements that came as a result of decades of sacrifices by Danes such as Karen seem to be in jeopardy. The new “red-green” government is no guarantee these achievements will be protected, and for many, the future remains uncertain.
Pedersen agrees: “The main challenge is to unify the Social Liberals and the red-green alliance and start making the needed economic reforms.”
“If they join forces it will be strong, but if the red-green alliance decides to play hard ball, the government will be weak,” warns Pedersen.
“The final say lies with people and civil society,” Ahmad says. “If change is not achieved through the ballot, then the examples set in countries in the Middle East and North Africa of direct and peaceful street action might be a way forward.”