Speaking to right-wing newspaper Jyllands-Posten on June 5, Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, invited right-of-center parties to join a coalition government spanning the left-right divide. “It’s only possible to lead a country if you can unify a country,” Frederiksen declared, calling for all parties to set aside their own platforms for the “good of the country.” The move is intended to isolate and marginalize the left-wing Red-Green Alliance, on whose parliamentary support Frederiksen’s Social Democrats currently rely.
The prime minister’s call may seem like a radical step. Indeed, it breaks with a long-standing political settlement in which a left-of-center and a right-of-center bloc take turns governing Denmark. This instead marks a new era of united ruling-class governance, in which an emboldened right-leaning Social Democratic government seeks to consolidate and extend its power.
Faced with such a nadir in relations between the ruling party and the Left, socialists have to grapple with its causes and its likely fallout. Yet it should also be recognized that this moment continues a long history of anti-socialist policies by the Social Democrats — especially when faced with a more radical opposition.
Across the Middle
Frederiksen’s stated reasons for flirting with the Right are twofold. First is the ongoing pandemic and what the ruling party sees as the demand for depoliticized technocratic governance, akin to wartime grand-coalition governments.
The second reason is the war in Ukraine and the subsequent recent “national compromise,” in which the center-left and center-right agreed to vastly increase military spending from 1.47 to 2 percent of Denmark’s annual budget by 2033, with a $2.6 billion annual price tag.
Such a spending rise is only possible because the major parties agreed to allow a larger budget deficit than is usually allowed. Normally, the impermissibility of higher public spending and increasing the deficit is a key argument against the possibility of socialist policies — yet, to a hawkish Social Democratic government, the military is exempt from such concerns.
As an indication of this rapprochement with the Right, the government recently won a national referendum on abolishing one of the key clauses that Denmark negotiated when joining the European Union — namely, nonparticipation in the EU’s foreign and defense policies. By uniting with the right-of-center parties, the Social Democrats won the vote and isolated the Eurosceptic left and far right.
Without doubt, the Social Democrats are today struggling with an ever-more crowded center ground. The Social Liberals, who traditionally straddle the left-right divide but ultimately side with the center-left, recently declared they would not support a purely center-left government after next year’s general election. As potential kingmakers in 2023, the Social Liberals will attempt to fracture this traditional divide, already complicated by the presence of two far-right parties in parliament.
Also in the mix is former prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who last year left the Liberals — a major right-wing party — to form the more big-tent Moderates, in an attempt to hamstring the historically larger parties and occupy the center ground. Rasmussen had long attempted a cross-divide collaboration with the Social Democrats, who consistently rebuffed his advances.
During Rasmussen’s two terms as prime minister (2009–11, 2015–19), he pulled Denmark to the right, with massive spending cuts. He also shut down the commission tasked with inquiring into the justifications for Denmark entering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in particular finding whether the 2003 Iraq war was illegal.
Yet, tellingly, when the Social Democrats returned to power in 2019, incoming prime minister Frederiksen refused to reopen that commission. She thus continued the hawkish Bush Doctrine foreign policy in which Denmark closely aligned with George W. Bush’s imperialist ventures, and recently also cozied up to the far-right Israeli government.
Frederiksen presides over a historically strong Social Democratic government, made possible by the most left-wing parliament in half a century. On certain key issues, the party surely has departed from the previous right-wing administration. From the “Blackstone laws” curbing property speculation by multinational capital funds to a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent by 2030, the government sporadically implements genuinely progressive legislation.
It may, then, seem counterintuitive for the Social Democrats to unnecessarily shake up the status quo. Yet the party faced a catastrophic defeat in last fall’s local elections, in part reflecting a popular backlash against the “mink scandal” in which the government covered up evidence and misled the public about a cull of animals imagined to be spreading COVID-19. The move was widely seen as symbolic of power grabs by Frederiksen’s government.
The Social Democrats have also taken up the mantle of the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party to push through exclusionary legislation such as the “Ghetto Law.” It explicitly discriminates based on ethnicity, leading to ethnic minorities being kicked out of their housing and defendants facing harsher sentencing based on whether they live in an area with a high ethnic-minority population. Acclaimed sociologist Aydin Soei has condemned the law’s “extremely negative portrayal” of these highly deprived areas, “far removed from reality.” The Left has been very successful in formulating strong arguments against these policies.
Seeking to curb excessive urbanization and centralization of economic activity in the large cities, the Social Democrats have pursued a policy which throws the urban working class under the bus in order to court rural supporters of the Right and far right. The result is that urban working-class voters have left the party in droves. Last fall, the Red-Green Alliance became the largest party in Copenhagen for the first time, with a 10 percent loss for the Social Democrats helping the left-wing force to a whopping 24.6 percent support. Its hegemony in the capital echoes the successes of the Left in cities like Barcelona and offers signs of growing momentum.
Yet, faced with these challenges, the Social Democrats are mounting a renewed battle for the center-ground and against the Left. In this context, there are at least three reasons for their strategy of reaching out to the Right: First, rebuking charges that the government has concentrated power to an unprecedented degree during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to ongoing efforts, the position of prime minister is probably the most powerful it has been in the post-1945 era. The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in support for the government which is now waning.
The second reason is to cannibalize the center-right parties’ base through a “people’s party” strategy transcending the Social Democrats’ traditional role representing the working class. In response, the leaders of the two largest right-of-center parties both immediately — and predictably — rejected Frederiksen’s alliance offer.
This move suggests that the Social Democrats are mainly seeking to appear as a unifying party that simply manages the economy, as opposed to providing a transformative economic program of redistribution and equality. By appeasing the Right on military spending and anti-immigration policy, the proposal is in fact a shift toward these right-wing parties.
The third and most sinister reason — and an extension of the second — is to isolate and disempower the Left. If Social Democrats’ antagonism against socialist parties is a well-known historical phenomenon, in today’s Denmark, this animosity is particularly strong. Faced with the soaring socialist left in Copenhagen — owing much to the impotence of the anti-speculation law and hugely controversial construction projects in a protected nature reserve — the Social Democrats instead preferred to side with the Right. In mayoral negotiations following the election, they opted for an alliance with the far-right Danish People’s Party instead of the two parties to their left (the Socialist People’s Party and the Red-Green Alliance).
Having taken 6.9 percent support in 2019’s general election but consistently polled higher ever since, today the Red-Green Alliance has a unique opportunity to build a credible socialist alternative with real solutions to the cost-of-living crisis, the housing crisis, and the climate crisis. By politicizing urban policy and linking environmental concerns with a transformative economic agenda, the socialist left has pulled the blanket out from under the Social Democrats, who increasingly appear removed from ordinary people’s concerns.
Anti-Socialist Social Democrats
So, how should we understand the current scenario? The president of the Danish Trade Union Confederation, Lizette Risgaard, applauded the prime minister’s move for fostering “cooperation and compromises.” The leadership of the Danish union movement thus firmly backs the ruling party. Yet not everyone on the Left and in the labor movement sees things similarly.
The Social Democrats are partly banking on the Red-Green Alliance being punished at the ballot box at next year’s general election. The party has, surely, suffered from internal divisions over how to interpret the war in Ukraine, recently reneged on its declared aim of Denmark exiting the European Union, and was on the losing side of the recent referendum on the EU military program.
As Red-Green Alliance advisor Poyâ Pâkzâd tells Jacobin, Frederiksen’s move will also have wider consequences for public policy: “With the so-called ‘National Compromise,’ which is largely about military spending, the Social Democrats have emptied the public coffers for several years to come. As a result, welfare spending will suffer. There is no money for any lasting climate or welfare initiatives beyond the status quo.”
Yet if the Social Democrats truly imagine that the Left is on its knees, they are likely making a big mistake. The disagreements on Ukraine, while widely seized upon by the mainstream media as evidence of a party in disarray, hardly seem to have damaged its still strong poll ratings.
Indeed, Pâkzâd predicts that “the backdrop to all of this is Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. But as the fear inevitably subsides, my guess is the popular backlash will hit the Social Democrats like a boomerang.” The Social Democratic attempt at realignment with the Right will necessarily involve right-wing economic policies which will alienate the large base of firmly social democratic and socialist voters in the country who want more, not less redistribution, as well as a radical and just green transition.
Pâkzâd points out that “to ensure the extra billions needed for the new military expenses the government has had to relax the deficit rules. It’s reasonable to expect that the Social Democrats will compensate for the imbalance by pursuing austerity. They know we won’t have it. So now they’re testing the commitment of centrist voters by hypothesizing coalitions with the center-right.” How this strategy will fare remains unclear.
Yet as simply the most recent chapter in a long history of Social Democratic anti-socialism, the resolve and organizational strength of the Danish socialist left will be tested in the period leading up to next year’s general election. Strategically challenging the Social Democrats from the Left is a necessary response in order to counter their own slide to the Right.