Negative Parliamentarian Governance and Radical Right-Wing Populism

The Rise of the Danish People’s Party

By
Negative Parliamentarian Governance and Radical Right-Wing Populism : The Rise of the Danish People’s Party - Madison Wilcox

Abstract

Since its electoral breakthrough in 2001, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) has been an influential force within Danish politics. With its anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and socially conservative policies, the DPP promotes an ideology that represents a break from the socially liberal stereotype of Scandinavian countries. Yet, the DPP has steadily gained power in the Danish Parliament (Folketing), receiving the second highest percentage of votes in the 2015 elections. The purpose of this article is to posit an explanation for the DPP’s disproportionate influence and for the concurrent rightward shift in Danish politics. While there are many possible causes for the meteoric rise of the far right in Denmark, this piece will be limited to exploring the shift as a reflection of wider European political trends as well as the structure of the Danish parliamentary system. The article will demonstrate that, while an upswing in extreme right-wing politics within the successful framework of xenophobia and anti-establishment politics gave rise to the DPP’s increased power, the negative parliamentarian government structure in Denmark has additionally enabled the party to exert magnified influence on policy formation. These conclusions provide some explanation for Denmark’s strict immigration policies.

Introduction

Denmark, along with its Scandinavian counterparts, is often categorized as an ultra-left political utopia by those in the United States and elsewhere. Known for socially liberal values and a highly-developed welfare state with over 30% of GDP spent on social expenditure, Denmark has been held up as a social-democratic framework worth emulating by influential progressives such as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. However, in 2015 and 2016, Denmark passed some of the most conservative policies in Europe, particularly in regards to immigration and assimilation. These measures included expanding the waiting period for family reunification and allowing the government to repossess the assets of asylum-seekers to help support their livelihoods.1 Since 2001, the rise of the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti or DPP), which operates on an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and nationalist platform, has led this dramatic shift. 

While there are several possible explanations for the recent swing in the Danish political arena, this argument will be limited to exploring two of the reasons most widely prevalent in academic literature. Although many commentators would attribute the influence of the DPP to a broader right-wing populist trend in Europe, this piece will expand upon this theory to demonstrate how endogenous factors within Denmark have contributed to some of the harshest immigration policies on the continent.  

To contextualize the argument, this paper will begin by providing a brief background on the structure of the Danish parliamentary system, recent election results, and the ideological platform of the DPP. Next, it will demonstrate the link between the growth of the DPP and the expansion of populist right-wing parties in Europe around a “fundamental core of ethno-nationalist xenophobia and anti-political establishment populism.”2 Finally, it will posit that Denmark’s negative parliamentarian system, which facilitates governance by minority coalitions, has enabled the DPP’s larger-than-expected effect on domestic policy. 

Background: The Danish Parliamentary System and Recent Election Results

Denmark’s constitution outlines a system of negative parliamentarism, which does not require the government to have a majority in parliament, but necessitates its resignation if there is a majority in opposition. Put another way, the parliament’s power is derived from its capacity to unseat an incumbent government.  This power is concentrated around the Folketing (the parliament) and the prime minister, who leads the governing coalition in parliament. Thus, Danish governments have, since 1909, consistently been composed of minority coalitions. These parties compete for seats and create alliances to form a majority to control parliament. In most cases, the ruling parties do not manage to achieve an absolute majority, but are often able to secure the votes of enough supporting parties to ensure that there is not a majority against them. Therefore, governing parties must be willing to negotiate with smaller parties and make concessions across the political spectrum to garner enough support to pass legislation and remain in power, which leads to  politics of consensus.3

This system is in direct contrast to positive parliamentarianism, in which a new government is created only by winning a majority vote. Positive parliamentary systems are found in many major European countries including Germany, Hungary, and Poland. For these countries, although coalitions are often still necessary to form a government, minority governments are less likely to be formed because they require explicit majority support.4   As such, the necessity of a majority for investiture as well as removal of a government is relatively demanding and may require more centrist governing coalitions compared to forms of negative parliamentarianism found in countries like Austria, Norway, and Denmark.5 

Historically, the four most influential parties have been the Conservative People’s Party, the Social-Democrats, the Liberal Party (Venstre), and the Danish Social Liberal Party. The Liberal Party and the Conservatives are both right-wing groups that have typically supported tight fiscal and protectionist trade policies. The Social-Democrats have been the leading party in Denmark for many years, carrying the most seats in parliament from 1924 to 2001, and can be credited with support for the working class and the creation of a highly-developed welfare state.6 In the past, the Social-Democrats have most frequently formed minority coalitions with fellow left-wing parties, but in recent times this traditional balance has been challenged by the presence of the DPP.

Over the past 15 years, establishment right-wing groups have aligned with the DPP during elections in an attempt to control Parliament. In 2001, the Liberals managed to break the grip of the Social-Democrats and form a minority coalition government with the Conservatives. Although the DPP was given no cabinet representation, the Liberal-Conservative coalition’s ability to govern hinged on their support.7 While DPP came in third in the general election, garnering only 12% of the popular vote, their twenty-two seats in Parliament were vital to the Liberal-Conservative coalition’s voting majority. As such, the DPP exerted exaggerated authority, despite having a small fraction of overall national support. Over the next ten years, the party continued to expand its base and provide parliamentary support, consistently receiving up to 14% of the popular vote by the end of the decade.8  

This steady growth stalled slightly in the 2011 elections, when the Social-Democrats pieced together a minority coalition following an economic dip brought about by the global recession of 2008. However, in the summer of 2015, following the largest refugee crisis since World War II, the DPP stormed back on the political scene, winning 21% of the total votes. Despite coming in behind the Social Democrats and the DPP, the Liberals, led by current Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, created a minority coalition cabinet consisting solely of Liberal ministers (a very rare occurrence in the history of the cabinet), thanks to the parliamentary support of the DPP. Since then, the Liberal party has formed a ruling Conservative coalition with other center-right wing parties.

Despite being asked to join the ruling coalition by Prime Minister Rasmussen in 2016, the DPP refused and continues to have no cabinet representation.9 The choice to remain outside the leadership has served a strategic, long-term goal because inclusion in the cabinet would counteract the anti-political establishment platform which is central to the party’s image. Even since gaining electoral influence in 2001, DPP politicians consistently refer to other members of parliament as “they” instead of “we.”10 This gives the DPP the best of both worlds: a continued outsider status and a deciding vote in policy. This latest result, in addition to the election of Pia Kjærsgaard, founder and leader of the DPP from 1995 to 2012, as Speaker of the Parliament, has cemented the party’s influence in mainstream Danish politics. 

Rise of the DPP

Not in their wildest imagination would anyone have imagined, that large parts of Copenhagen and other Danish Towns would be populated by people who are at a lower stage of civilisation, with their own primitive and cruel customs […] This is exactly what is happening now. Thousands upon thousands of persons, who apparently – civilisationally, culturally, and spiritually – lives [sic] in the year 1005 instead of 2005, that come to a country [Denmark] that left the dark ages hundreds of years ago.11 

These are the words of Pia Kjærsgaard, founder of the Danish People’s Party and Speaker of Parliament since 2015, who has also claimed that the Quran teaches Muslims to “lie and deceive, cheat and swindle.”12 However, Muslims make up just one target of the DPP’s wrath, which extends to all immigrants. The party espouses the belief that an influx of immigrants will overwhelm the population, bringing with them violence and allegiance to foreign laws, which disrupt an otherwise peaceful country. As stated in the 2007 DPP Work Program, “to make Denmark multiethnic would mean that reactionary cultures, hostile to evolution, would break down our so-far stable, homogenous society [… ] Nowhere on the globe has a peaceful integration of Muslims into another culture been feasible.”13 Still, the DPP differs from other far-right parties in its support of the welfare state, education, and protection of the environment. In fact, while its stance on immigration would qualify the DPP as far-right, most of the party’s economic agenda is center-left in nature. However, it is the most championed and radical propositions, such as the repossession of immigrant property to pay for their living and barring Muslims from entering the country, that have given the party its notoriety and add to its appeal.14 

After the 2001 election, the DPP succeeded in implementing its more extreme policies on a national scale. Legislation spearheaded by the DPP strictly curtailed benefits for newly admitted immigrants. Furthermore, the new provisions encumbered their naturalization process. The party also had a key role in drafting an immigration law passed in May 2002, which includes provisions making marriage to non-nationals more difficult through the addition of minimum age and financial independence requirements. This legislation has also introduced a rigorous points system which makes active civic participation in Danish society a prerequisite for citizenship. These policies, seemingly aimed at poorer, non-native communities, have been the most evident examples of the far-right’s influence on the Danish agenda.15 

The DPP’s ability to affect policy depends on engaging enough of the population to get a crucial percentage of votes in parliament. The DPP garnered support by appealing to the working-class voters who had previously favored the Social-Democratic party. Many of these workers who had supported the Social-Democrats because of their commitment to the welfare state were attracted by the DPP’s similar commitment to welfare, with the caveat of a more ethno-centric focus. From 1998 to 2001, when the DPP first gained influence in the government, working class voters for DPP rose from 49% to 56% coupled with a 50% to 43% drop in support for the Social-Democrats.16  Additionally, much like similar populist leaders in Europe and the United States, increased influence in government and their headline-grabbing anti-immigrant rhetoric has brought the movement vast media attention, further extending their reach. 

In an attempt to curtail the loss of votes to the DPP and co-opt the core of its message, the Social-Democrats have recently taken an atypically hard line against immigration, promoting some additional limitations to welfare that is afforded to immigrants.17  Conversely, this has given the DPP an even larger role in agenda-setting as, for example, the media coverage leading up to the 2001 elections moved away from the Social-Democrats’ previously popular welfare policies to focus on their less-developed stance on immigration.18 This benefitted the DPP since, in addition to direct parliamentary pressure, it has managed to shift the policy conversation to one in which they have a stronger voice and more aggressive, coherent solutions. As a result, the legitimacy of the DPP increased not only via direct parliamentary support from the Conservatives but also through indirect policy acquiescence from the Social Democrats. 

Radical Right-Wing Populism in Europe

The rise of the Danish People’s Party is part of a wider growth of radical right-wing populism in Europe. Past literature on the subject suggests that the rise of the DPP is in part following a general trend that has taken place across Europe in the last decade, and which intensified after the economic recession of 2009. Many scholars have pointed to a distinctive group of populist right-wing parties that have been gaining traction in many other countries across Europe, including the French National Front under Marine Le Pen, the Austria Freedom Party under former federal Chancellor Jorg Haider, and the UK Independence Party formerly led by Nigel Farage.19 Though varying in their descriptive terminology, most refer to a convergence of views deriving from ethno-pluralism and anti-establishment politics.20  The DPP’s slogan “Denmark for the Danes” reflects the belief that Denmark has created an ideal and homogenous society that is worth protecting from outside influences. Party politicians often claim that Islam is linked to violence and  that Sharia law, if allowed to take root, would damage the rights of Danish women.21 The opposition to traditional government powers and the EU also creates the aura of political protest that can garner the support of those disaffected by economic downturns.22 

The concept of ethno-pluralism, which promotes the separation of different groups of people to preserve a unique (and purportedly endangered) culture, is fundamental to the radical right. Additionally, populist right-wing parties campaign against the political establishment, seeking to hand power back to the “people” (a population limited strictly to citizens who are native-born or representative of the nation’s largest ethnic group). Although populism and xenophobia have always had a place in the radical right’s agenda (witness Jean-Marie Le Pen’s inflammatory rhetoric throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, or the 26.9% share of the vote earned by the Austrian Freedom party in the 1999 election), the consolidation of these factors into primary policy goals by the contemporary far-right has been unique, contributing to its recent success across the continent.

This agenda is crucial in understanding the objectives of these groups. Its reduction of policy aims along xenophobic and populist lines corresponds to a policy template that can be used to describe a family of far-right European political parties. This policy template provides a simple solution to the wide variety of political and social realities of European countries. Jens Rydgren contends that these principles first took shape in the late 1970s in France and have spread due to their success. The National Front used both “othering” of minorities and criticism of the political establishment to gain the support of a working class buffeted by globalization and the decline of traditional industry, culminating in Marine Le Pen’s likely first-round victory in the 2017 French Presidential election. 

Delivering nativism within anti-establishment nationalism has “enabled parties of the extreme right to (1) mobilise xenophobic and/or anti-immigration attitudes without being stigmatised as racists, and (2) to pose a serious critique on contemporary democratic systems, and thereby foment political protest, without being stigmatised as antidemocrats.”23  These cleavages help to legitimize xenophobic and anti-state attitudes without going so far as to cause their overall condemnation. In fact, the DPP has been careful to condemn groups and individuals seen as propagating ideas that are too extreme. For instance, the party’s expulsion of 19 members, including one member with high ranking, in 1999 served to separate the DPP’s public image from groups displaying more overt racist ideologies.24 

Jungar and Jupskås identify growing support for similar views across the Nordic region. Using expert surveys, interviews with key party officials, archive data, and party manifestos, they conclude that, even though the True Finns, Swedish Democrats, and the DPP have had distinct political trajectories, they are now converging behind a radical right framework similar to the one spreading throughout Central and Southern Europe.25 The same assimilationist, anti-immigration, and anti-Islam rhetoric has been demonstrated by all parties, as has an increased degree of transnational linkages. Though cooperation was limited in the early 2000s, the DPP, Swedish Democrats, and True Finns maintain transnational linkages through formalized partnerships in international organizations as well as informal communication with party leaders in the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and the Lega Nord in Italy.26  

The DPP’s political position is thus intertwined with those of other movements in France, Britain, Sweden, and Austria. For example, in addition to both supporting limits on immigrants, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and the DPP have almost identical policies on the forcible assimilation of immigrants through national language tests and the relinquishment of allegiance to Islamic law.27 Similarly, UKIP and the DPP both also support a five-year waiting period before immigrants are entitled to receive benefits, a ban on unskilled workers, and a points system for skilled workers to attain citizenship. Moreover, the radical right groups in these countries campaign on a platform of being outside the political establishment and against EU integration.28 After winning positions at the EU level, these groups often cooperate and use their European Parliament votes to influence decisions about immigration in the Union.29

The Folketing Effect

Building off what has been identified as a wider trend of radical right-wing parties in Europe, this section will analyze the role the negative parliamentary structure of the Folketing plays in enhancing the influence of the DPP. The first element to explore is the relatively small percentage of parliamentary votes that the DPP controls in relation to the weight given to its policy proposals, especially after the 2001 election. Though the DPP has been the second largest party in Parliament since 2015, it does not follow that a party that had such little prior support—having won only 7% of the popular vote in 1998 and 12% in 2001—should have been able to shift the policy discourse on immigration and social issues to the extent that the DPP did. Months after their electoral victory in 2011, the Social-Democratic government created a Ministry of Refugee, Immigration, and Integration Affairs with the support of the the DPP, and implemented a set of more stringent policies which led to a dramatic drop in asylum applications to Denmark from 53% in 2001 to 28% in 2002.30  This increased political power, as a result of the negative parliamentarian structure, effectively legitimized and increased the political power of the DPP, and allowed them to promote their platform to a wider audience.

The 2001 elections were a watershed moment for the DPP and a great surprise to many, in terms of both the results and the dominant topics of conversation. A large proportion of Danish academics believed that taxation would be the highlighted issue, as many workers opposed a tax policy recently introduced by the Social Democrat-led government.31 However, in 2001, 20% of voters named immigration as the most important issue affecting their vote, compared to 4% a decade earlier.32 The DPP strategically promoted this topic as their primary policy focus. 

The Social-Democrats saw their support drop among working class voters, and so respositioned themselves to take a harder line against immigration. In doing so, they allowed the rhetoric of the extreme-right to gain attention and validity. The Social-Democratic party further appeared weak and scattered as leading members, like former Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen called the DPP “dishonorable,” while other members, like Mogens Camre, echoed DPP calls to limit immigration.33 Driven by the threat of a shift in the political balance of power should the DPP win more seats in the Parliament, the Social-Democrats moved their pary position to the right. This move ultimately legitimized the DPP and its proposed policies, without them needing to secure an electoral victory. 

This course of events would have been less likely under a different government system. Under a simple two party system, the Social-Democrats could have trusted that working-class voters would not switch their vote to a right-wing party that sought to limit the welfare state, and thus would have been secure enough to maintain its liberal stance on immigration. Meanwhile, under a positive parliamentarian system, the DPP would have been required to officially join a majority government with the Conservatives—a requirement that would have undermined their strategy of maintaining their outsider’s appeal by not directly participating in the inner government despite their electoral success.

However, in Denmark’s minority coalition system, a small fraction of the traditional Social-Democrat-supporting, working-class voters  pushed the entire national government towards a center-right coalition by shifting their support to the DPP and their anti-immigration policies. Support for the DPP from the working-class increased by only 7% between 1998 and 2001 (from 49% to 56%). However, this was a large enough change to cause the Social-Democrats to fear a political swing. To maintain their control of the national government, the Social-Democrats thus sought to appeal to this small group of voters that held conservative opinions on immigration, and voluntarily moved their party platform to the right. Although intended to stymie a rightward political shift of the entire government, this shift was disloyal to the socially liberal Social-Democrat base, and gave preferences to the concerns of a small group of single-issue swing voters. Due to this shift on the part of the Social-Democrats, the 2001 election marked a tipping point in Danish national politics, after which the DPP exerted enough control to transform the national discourse on key policy issues. 

In addition to pushing the DPP’s political opponents to change their policy positions, the minority coalition government system allowed DPP to exert undue influence on lawmaking. The center-right minority coalition that formed in 2001 was dependent on the DPP, its main supporting party. The coalition was therefore heavily influenced by the DPP’s demands for harsher regulations on immigration since the DPP could threaten to leave the coalition at any time, and thus cause it to lose power. Within months of the election, the Conservative government passed new laws based directly on the DPP’s election rhetoric. This included laws to restrict rights of entry, cut welfare benefits for non-citizens, and to limit the rights of Danish citizens to sponsor and be reunified with spouses to those over the age of 24.34 DPP brinksmanship forced the Liberals to concede policy ground to a greater extent than they, and indeed the majority of the Danish population, would have prefered. In fact, the opposition termed the government “blokpolitik” because almost all agreements and negotiations in the Social-Democrat coalition were made exclusively with the DPP. Using this strategy, the DPP have been directly credited with influencing a host of policies including the age barrier and points system for citizenship by marriage, drastic cuts in benefits for new arrivals, military involvement in Afghanistan, and stricter border control.35  

Sweden, another country using a system of negative parliamentarism, has seen the similar rise of their own far-right party, the Swedish Democrats. Though several years behind the DPP in development and electoral success, the party has managed to become the third largest in Sweden following the 2014 elections. The Swedish Democrats arose out of a more openly-right-wing extremist and less populist movement than the DPP. As such, the term “extremist,” which is almost never used in the Danish media when referring to the DPP, is commonplace in Sweden in reference to the Swedish Democrats.36 

Unlike in Denmark, Sweden’s left-leaning Social-Democrats have had enough support to create a coalition to control government. Furthermore, the Swedish mainstream parties have managed to ice out the Swedish Democrats through both political action and rhetoric. Still, there have been modifications to immigration policy mirroring those made in Denmark. For example, Sweden now supports reducing the minimum number of immigrants admitted to the EU, which is a sharp reversal from their previous open-door policy.37 This points to a self-imposed shift rightwards due to similar fears of losing votes, and therefore the helm of the government, to the populist far right. 

It must be noted there are numerous other arguments that could account for the DPP’s rise to power. One such argument is purely economic: data analysis has shown that there has been a higher transfer of government resources to immigrant populations in Denmark than other segments of society as compared to other countries in Europe. This possibly makes the DPP agenda more economically advantageous for native-born Danish citizens.38  Secondly, analysis suggests that, in coalition government systems, the political right gains influence when inflation rates rise, as it did in Denmark in 2001.39 However, despite this increase before the elections, it came after  several years of positive economic performance, and so should not have been of significant concern to voters.40 Third, the economic crisis of 2009 has been largely credited for the shift in power back to the opposition, Social-Democrats in 2011.41 Ultimately, these suggest that the economic cycle of boom and bust plays a part in the success of opposition parties in elections, but does not fully explain the gradual and sustained growth of far-right parties in Denmark.

There has also been considerable attention paid to a historical explanation, especially in Nordic countries. According to these theories, Denmark, a small and homogenous nation with a history of foreign domination, might feel more threatened by a large influx of immigrants than other countries might.42 While this argument may explain some of the extremity of recent Danish anti-immigration policy, it fails to explain the growing trend of xenophobia and support for far-right parties in Europe as a whole. Furthermore, this argument would not hold for Norway, a similarly-sized country with a record of foreign domination that surpasses that of Denmark, whose only significant far-right party, the Progress Party, champions less extreme immigration policies than its Scandinavian counterparts—Swedish Democrats, DPP, and the True Finns—and has been weakening over the past decade. They currently carry less than 10% of the popular vote and have little influence in government.43 

Conclusions

The strengthening influence of the Danish People’s Party is a phenomenon that has transformed the laws and political discourse in what was thought to be one of the most tolerant societies in the world. The rise of the radical right in Denmark built on a wider European trend using a framework of ethno-pluralism and anti-establishment politics. While the DPP looks to limit immigration and EU integration, it maintains a position outside the governing coalition in order to secure the political protest vote. The similarities between the policies of the DPP and those of populist far-right parties in Austria, Sweden, Finland, Britain, France, and others point to the growth of a family of political parties in which the DPP neatly fits. 

The negative parliamentarian structure of the Danish government allowed the DPP to exert greater influence on policy due to its position as a Conservative coalition member. The coalition’s dependence on the DPP contributed to the enactment of some of the strictest immigration laws in Europe. Nevertheless, while the DPP’s voice in legislation has grown, and as its policy stances have steadily gained legitimacy, the party has stayed out of the minority coalition so as to influence policy without compromising its anti-establishment reputation. 

Understanding the rise of the DPP is important given the wider implications of its growing influence. First, their success confirms the prediction of literature on the power of the ethno-pluralist, anti-establishment framework of contemporary radical-right wing parties. Second, if the DPP and other political parties using this framework should continue to grow in popularity, they could create new problems within the EU. As their political influence increases, isolationism could increase, economic linkages could become less efficient, and cooperation could decline. Already, Brexit, promoted in large part by UKIP, has caused deep tension between the United Kingdom and the EU. This split might culminate in a more restricted freedom of movement, and could cause the fragmentation of the UK should Scotland decide to sek its own independence. These same tensions have carried over to the French 2017 presidential election as Marine Le Pen and the National Front look poised to win the first round of the election. Furthermore, the analysis of the DPP provides insight in terms of the subtleties of influence in a negative parliamentarian system controlled by minority coalitions. Voters, politicians, and the media can benefit from being more cognizant of the unique power dynamics within this system of government as they discuss policy and vote. Finally, as Presidential candidates in the United States and scholars across the world point to Denmark as the ideal system to try and imitate, it is important to fully understand what they desire to emulate. 

Madison Wilcox is currently a combined BA/MA candidate focusing on International Economics and International Law. After completing undergraduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University, Madison continued at the JHU School of Advanced International Studies for graduate work. His areas of interest include the evolution of international human rights law as well as dynamic economic development within the international system. His past work experiences range from domestic law and public development to extensive involvement in an international NGO.