The Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti DF)2 was the big winner of the European Parliament (EP) elections in Denmark with 26.7 per cent of the votes. This represented a rise in the party’s votes of 11.2 per cent compared to the EP elections in 2009. The Danish People’s Party was also one of the biggest winners of the EP elections within Europe as a whole.
However, there is a crucial distinction between the DF and most of the other extreme right-wing parties in Europe: In studying the development of the DF one discovers one of the most strategically oriented European extreme right-wing parties, less ideological and more pragmatic than many of the others. Other extreme right-wing European parties are doubtless observing and discussing the DF’s strategy and policies. To what extent will its success influence other parties in Europe?
That the DF got a quarter of the votes does not of course mean that the Danish electorate has suddenly become extreme right-wing and xenophobic. It would be more accurate to say that it is the DF – basically a populist, xenophobic, nationalist, and extreme right-wing party – that has moved towards, and tried to compromise with, the positions of the broad working classes, rather than the working classes moving towards it.
In keeping with its aim to become an influential party at the centre of Denmark’s political spectrum, the DF has joined the group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) – with the British Conservatives – in the European Parliament, and not the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), the more right-wing and EU-sceptical group.
The DF has less success at the national level, where its support is now 17.9 per cent (according to a 30 June opinion poll)3 – around 9 per cent down from the EP election result, but still with a substantial increase of 5.6 per cent since Denmark’s last parliamentary elections in 2011.4 It has 5 per cent less support than the Social Democrats and Venstre, the large liberal party, which both muster around 23 per cent support in this poll. The new voters attracted to the party in the EP elections are mainly former liberal Venstre voters and former Social Democratic voters.5
As the DF supports the formation of a right-wing bourgeois government after the next parliamentary elections, due to take place before 15 September 2015,6 it may very well be able to secure a victory for the right-wing bloc of parties, although the party has also recently announced that in the more distant future it might support the Social Democrats.7
The DF does not seem to have attracted any EU-sceptical supporters of the radical left, for example from the Red Green Alliance (RGA), which did not stand in the elections but as in previous EP elections chose to support the People’s Movement Against the EU, which won one seat, as in 2009.
The explanations for the most recent success of the DF are many, both on the national and EU levels. The most important is the conscious strategy of the DF to capitalise on popular disaffection with the mainstream political parties because of their support of austerity policies and social cuts and these parties’ uncritical position regarding the EU. Second, the DF has very adroitly linked this disaffection to the social dumping, or lowering of wages and benefits, provoked by immigration from Eastern Europe due to the EU’s free movement of labour. Thus it has connected itself to the general EU-scepticism among a broad section of the Danish working class and many other voters. Third, the DF had a very charismatic and able top candidate in the EP elections, Morten Messerschmidt, who managed to attract the largest number of personal votes (465,758) in the entire history of Danish EP elections. Lastly, a scandal involving Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the previous Prime Minister and Chairman of Venstre, just before the EP elections,8 made many voters turn away from Venstre and to the DF.
The DF is verbally a very EU-sceptical party, but in reality less so than the Red Green Alliance, for example. It is not opposed to the EU as an institution and system and is not anti-capitalist; it is in fact in favour of the single market but proposes it be reduced by introducing an opt-out on welfare.9
Similarly, although the DF voices strong opposition to social dumping, it does very little in reality to counter it and has, in fact, usually voted against countermeasures.10 Likewise, despite the party’s image as a strong supporter of the weak and elderly, its elected representatives in local councils have made compromises, approving cuts in public welfare.
The DF promotes itself as a centre party but in reality votes like a rightwing one.11 Nevertheless, this populism and hypocrisy does not seem to affect the broad popular view of the DF. During the years of bourgeois rule from 2001 to 2011, the DF pursued the familiar policies of an extreme right-wing party – as reflected in its restrictive immigration policies. These years were extremely successful for the party in terms of political impact, as the DF (with between 12 and 13.9 per cent in the elections) became the parliamentary majority maker of the bourgeois government and used this position to promote and implement their policies in various deals with the government. This led to a serious deterioration in the political and economic condition of immigrants and refugees in Denmark.
It should incidentally be noted that the Social Democratic-led government, which has been in power since 2011, has done nothing to change these policies, apart from abolishing the so-called ‘start-up help’ together with other ‘poverty’ benefits, which meant the removal of the lowest category of social benefits for immigrants.
In sum, the main political achievement of the DF has been to become stronger by attracting the votes of the mainstream parties; at the same time it has also been able to move the mainstream parties to the right – especially with regard to immigration policies.
But the DF has also softened its stance over recent years. There is a focused and determined strategy of seeming to move towards the centre of Danish politics, which the DF has deftly pursued for years.
This strategy builds on a solid analysis and understanding of the broad Danish working-class voters, who are generally not attracted to right-wing extremism. By the same token, neither they nor many of the lower-middleclass voters and pensioners, who were among the first to vote in favour of the DF, are attracted to fascism. Nazi or fascist inclinations always constituted a very small minority culture in Denmark. But many of these working-class and lower-middle-class voters were and are concerned with the issue of ‘too many’ immigrants and refugees, seemingly threatening their jobs or the welfare state. The DF has sought to exploit this reality. The style of the party has clearly become less overtly racist, although for years it had attacked immigrants and refugees, especially of Muslim background, and underlined the importance of being Danish.
However, since the last elections in 2011 the effort to move to the centre has become even more obvious, especially with a new party chairman since 2012, when Kristian Thulesen Dahl replaced Pia Kjarsgaard. With him the party has acquired a new softer style.
The DF was established in 1995 from a split in the Progress Party,12 a true right-wing extremist protest party, more extreme than the DF ever was. Those who established the new party were fully aware that in order to gain influence they had to create a party able to appeal to a much larger section of the electorate. The DF was not to be a protest party only. In 1998 the DF scored its first breakthrough when it got 7.4 per cent of the votes in the parliamentary elections. After trimming and centralising, and expelling those who opposed this move, it slowly gained more ground. It does not want to appear to be associated with extreme right-wing parties like the French Front National or UKIP in Britain, (which advocate leaving the EU).
Political developments have favoured the DF. Both its impact during the former bourgeois government and now the popular disenchantment with the centre-left government from 2011 have made it possible to attract many Social Democratic voters.
Party membership now boasts a broad cross-section of the population, including trade union members. Members are no longer publicly timid about their membership.13 A recent study shows that the DF is now the biggest working-class party in Denmark – bigger than the two big mainstream parties – with 26.7 per cent of working-class voters supporting the party.14 The perspective of the party is clearly to try to turn its recent wins into a stable electorate.
The DF’s progress, complemented by the mainstream parties’ loss of ground, seems to be part of a larger reorientation in Danish politics. The progress of the Red Green Alliance since 2011 – from May to July 2014 it was at around 10 per cent in the polls15 – is also part of this trend. Just like the DF, the RGA has attracted a huge number of new voters, disaffected with the Social Democratic-led government’s austerity policies and attacks on the welfare state. But this only brought the RGA limited success compared to the DF. Therefore the critical strengthening of the DF is clearly a challenge for the Danish left and the RGA.
For a number of years the RGA tried to demonstrate how the DF’s verbal assurances of opposing welfare cuts did not match its practice,16 but without much impact. Recently, one of the RGA parliamentary candidates interviewed together with a DF member of parliament in a Danish daily17 voiced the opinion that developing a left-wing populism, parallel to the DF’s right-wing version, could perhaps help the radical left. But the RGA as a whole regards populism as more of a tactical than a political answer.
There are now also overtures from the Danish Socialist People’s Party (SF) to the DF for closer cooperation -for example on concrete issues such as the government’s new job reform.18 SF is politically close to the Social Democrats19 and a member of the Green group in the European Parliament.
It is important that some of the concerns of DF’s voters be taken seriously by the left, and the RGA is thinking about measures to address this and attract disaffected voters who have gone over to the DF. As regards political responses, the RGA is already very critical of the EU – even more than the DF. Developing more EU criticism as such would seem to be important for radical left parties elsewhere in the EU as one way to deal with the concerns and the EU-scepticism of the broad public, which might see extreme rightwing parties as an alternative.
However, since the RGA chose to support the Danish People’s Movement and not run directly in the recent EP elections it did not get a chance to fully campaign on left-wing positions, such as connecting its own opposition to the EU’s neoliberal economic policies and austerity directly to the opposition by a broad section of the Danish working classes to aspects of austerity policies. Denmark is not a member of the European Monetary Union; nevertheless Denmark’s centre-left government has chosen to comply with EU economic policies and the Fiscal Pact. In this area the RGA certainly has an opportunity to reach more of the working-class voters who are presently attracted to the DF. One of the advantages of the radical left is its ability to link criticism of neoliberal policies to anti-capitalism and to develop credible alternatives to liberal and social democratic policies.