Path: ICPP > ICPP2000 > Denmark since 1963
DENMARK: The Party System from 1963 to 2000, by Daniel Corstange*

As a mature, liberal democracy, Denmark would be expected to experience significant stability in its political life in general and its party system in particular. Indeed, the first few years after the original ICPP period seemed to be business-as-usual. Though the "four old parties"--the Social Democratic Party (SD), the Liberal Party (V), the Conservative People's Party (KF), and the Radical Liberal Party (RV)--had been joined in the Folketing (parliament) by the new Socialist People's Party (SF) in 1960, the SF was relatively weak compared to the established parties, which maintained stable legislative strength vis-à-vis each other. As the SF gained strength, the possibility of a purely socialist government arose, leading to new, untested alliances. A new era in Danish politics was born in 1973 in what became appropriately known as the "earthquake elections," when the Progress Party (FRP) and the Center Democrats (CD) stormed noisily on to the scene. Hence, after the original 1950-1962 period studied by the ICPP, two broad periods can be traced: outward stability and growing tensions from 1963-1972, and protest and political fragmentation from 1973-present.

Outward Stability and Growing Tensions, 1963-1972

From the original ICPP period to 1966, the legislative strength of the four old parties combined never dropped below 85 percent of the seats in the Folketing. Smaller, less-established parties--the Communist Party (DKP) and Justice Party (DR), for example--were allowed to wither away from the indifference of the big four, who had no incentive to cooperate with them. Governments were based on either the SD-RV or the V-KF formulas (Fitzmaurice, 1981: 122). Danish electoral politics hence took on a loose bloc arrangement with some of the broader characteristics of a two-party system.

The 1966 elections were a bellwether of things to come, however. The election returns showed the SF making noteworthy gains, which for the first time presented the prospect of a socialist majority Folketing between the SD and SF. Though the SF did not officially join the cabinet, it did support the minority SD government from the outside from 1966-1968. This provoked a shift in traditional alliances: the RV joined the "bourgeois" V-KF bloc, which emerged as an alternate government from 1968-1971. When this coalition was defeated in the 1971 elections, another minority SD government took office with outside support from the SF.

Protest and Political Fragmentation

The proverbial bomb dropped on the Danish party system in 1973. Two new parties, the FRP and CD, suddenly appeared in the political arena, claiming roughly one-quarter of the seats between them. The Christian People's Party (KRF) also placed their first deputies, and both the DKP and DR returned from long absences. All the older parties, including the SF, lost ground to the newcomers; the FRP's 16 percent return made it the second largest faction in the Folketing. Facing mounting economic problems and lowered voter confidence in the established parties, the new parties were able to sweep up the protest vote and stake claims on the traditional constituencies of all the other parties.

The V Government that emerged from the elections faced a number of difficulties that were to become hallmarks of the Danish political system over the next 25 years. First, it was a minority Government, as almost all have been since the earthquake election. Furthermore, it was a one-party minority Government, as nearly half the governments since then have been. Lacking a majority, the Government had to seek short-term, ad hoc compromises on a per-issue basis, meaning that "solutions" tended to be in name only, alleviating symptoms but not really addressing root problems. Since the Folketing was so badly fragmented, Governments turned in all directions at once looking for allies to pass legislation. Furthermore, Governments were short-lived, with an average of 21 months between elections from 1973-1990 (Miller, 1996: 150-151).

After 13 months in power, the Liberal Government was forced to call another election in January of 1975. The V made impressive gains at the ballot box, roughly doubling their strength in the Folketing. Liberal Prime Minister Poul Hartling saw the results as a strong vote of confidence by the populace in his Government, and attempted to continue to govern as a minority. Nonetheless, after weeks of positioning and bargaining, a SD minority Government was back in power, with the RV promising not to oppose it and with support expected from the left-wing socialist parties (Miller, 1996: 154). Again, however, the Government was forced to come to accommodations with a variety of parties in order to pass any legislation, requiring it to cooperate with non-socialist parties on a regular basis. This caused increasing discontent among both constituencies.

The minority Government lasted just over two years. Elections were called again, set for February of 1977. The V lost most of their gains from the previous session, after being pegged as a "obstructionist" party by the SD Government. Eleven parties won representation in the Folketing: a new record, and indicative of the fragmentation of the party system and political life in Denmark. The SD continued to govern alone until August of 1978, when the oft-discussed but surprising SD-V coalition Government was formed. Between them, they controlled just under half the seats in the Folketing, and they assumed they could get the stray votes necessary on most issues. This unusual combination lasted just over a year, at which time the differences between the coalition partners became too overwhelming to bridge.

The October 1979 elections returned gains for both the SD and V; had their differences not been so great, they could have continued their coalition as a majority. Instead the "four-leaf clover" parties (V, KF, CD, KRF), along with the FRP, indicated they would not immediately oppose a minority SD Government, which promptly took office. The Government lasted until 1981, when it collapsed in the face of mounting economic concerns.

The results from the elections again to clarify the situation. No party was near a majority alone, and even the workable coalitions could not muster half the seats. Almost by default, another SD minority Government was formed, the RV again becoming the "weight on the scale," with its choice the determinant of the next prime minister (Miller, 1996, 176). The RV, with its willingness to support either socialist or non-socialist parties, helped keep successive Governments in the center, alleviating tendencies toward polarization and keeping the fragmented Folketing from swinging from left to right after each election. The SD Government lasted only until September of 1982, at which point Prime Minister Anker Jorgensen resigned, but agreed not to call elections. Taking the place of the SD was the "four-leaf clover" coalition.

This coalition lasted through the end of 1983, but suffered from all the usual difficulties of a minority Government. The elections of January 1984 favored the coalition, due in part to the popularity of Conservative Prime Minister Poul Schluter, the strengthened economy, and the belief that SD had forced the elections. The Government now controlled 44 percent of the seats (up from 36 percent), but was still a dozen or so short of a majority; "the four-leaf clover‚ coalition continued in office, but the task of governing had become no easier" (Miller, 1996: 186-187). It was able to cobble together razor-thin majorities on budget and economic issues, but again faced near-insurmountable difficulties in directing foreign policy and defense issues.

Nonetheless, the Government lasted over two and a half years. Schluter scheduled the elections for September of 1987--only a few months shy of the January 1988 deadline for new ones--and stated that the "four-leaf clover" coalition would fight the election together. The results were disastrous, creating a near-deadlock situation with practically no majorities to be found anywhere, much less in a governing coalition. All but the most simple votes relied on adversarial parties cooperating. The "four-leaf clover" coalition returned to power. Slightly over half a year later, a row developed over the placement of nuclear weapons on Danish territory, and full membership in NATO was cast in doubt. Schluter called yet another election to act partially as a referendum on the issue. The May 1988 elections did little to clarify the parliamentary picture: a virtual status quo was returned. Schluter returned as prime minister, this time at the head of a KF-RV-V minority coalition.

After two and a half years of the coalition, Schluter called for elections, held in December 1990. Though the SD made impressive gains, Schluter returned yet again, this time at the head of a KF-V coalition, controlling only a third of the seats. He was forced to resign, however, when political scandal--the "Tamil case"--erupted in January of 1993. SD leader Poul Nyrup Rasmussen emerged at the head of an SD-CD-RV-KRF coalition, the first majority Government since 1971. The coalition continued until the September 1994 elections. The V made the most impressive gains, though the governing coalition claimed victory. Nyrup Rasmussen continued as prime minister, this time as the head of an SD-RV-CD minority coalition. The next election, held in March of 1998, again returned Nyrup Rasmussen as head of a minority coalition, this time composed only of the SD and RV.

Continuity and Change in Political Parties, 1963-2000

Original Parties from 1950-1962 terminating before 2000

2011 Justice Party (Danmarks Retsforbund--DR) The DR, also known as the Single-Tax Party, was founded in 1919 on the principles of US economist Henry George, advocating the imposition of a single tax on land. Although moderately successful in the post-war period--even joining in a governing coalition with the Social Democrats (SD) and Radical Liberals (RV) from 1957-1960--the party fell on hard times in the 1970s, getting only sporadic representation in the legislature. The party is assumed to be defunct: they last placed deputies in the legislature in 1979. After obtaining less than the two-percent cutoff in the four successive elections, the party ceased to run on the national level in the 1990s.

Original Parties from 1950-1962, still continuing to 2000

201 Social Democratic Party (Socialdemokratiet i Danmark--SD) The SD has traditionally been the strongest party in Danish politics. The party maintained strength comparative to the original ICPP period--between 35 and 43 percent of the seats--until the "earthquake" election of 1973, when its support dropped to 26 percent. The party soon recovered somewhat, but experienced depressed electoral returns of around 30 percent of the seats throughout the 1980s. The party experienced a resurgence in the 1990s, taking 39 percent of the seats in the 1990 elections and holding 36 percent in the 1994 and 1998 elections. The SD was in government through 1982--with a brief period in opposition from 1973-1975. It then spent the next 11 years in opposition, until regaining the prime minister's office in 1993.

202 Liberal Party (Venstre, Danmarks liberale Parti--V) Legislative strength for the V declined after the original ICPP period, as the party shed roughly 35 percent of its seats from its ICPP high in 1958 to the induction of the 1972 legislature (26 percent of the seats in 1958, 17 percent in 1972). After the V's prospects briefly revived in 1975--doubling the party's returns from the 1973 "earthquake" election (Thomas and Oakley, 1998: 266) -- but then sunk to the 12 percent level in the 1977 elections, at which plateau the V remained throughout the 1980s. Despite this significant decline in legislative strength, the V still managed to exercise considerable strength in the government, joining a coalition with the Radical Liberal Party (RV) from 1968-1971, leading a minority cabinet from 1973-1975, joining an unusual coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SD) from 1978-1979, and formed a key component in all the Conservative cabinets throughout the 1980s. The party's fortunes revived in the 1990s, jumping to 17 percent of the seats in 1990 to around 25 percent after the 1994 elections.

203 Conservative People's Party (Konservative Folkeparti--KF) After enjoying fairly steady legislative strength during the original ICPP period of roughly 20 percent of the seats, the KF's fortunes declined in the latter half of the 1970s, when new parties--the Progress Party and Center Democrats, both rightist, protest parties -- siphoned off support. Likewise, the party experienced leadership disputes in the mid-1970s, which hurt it electorally, as its legislative strength dropped precipitously. The KF's fortunes began to revive after Poul Schluter took over party leadership in 1974. The party returned to double-digit strength in the legislature in 1980, and in 1982 Schluter became Denmark's first Conservative prime minister since 1901. The party remained strong throughout the 1980s, but experienced another sharp drop in the 1998 elections, partially caused by the emergence of the rightist Danish People's Party (DF).

204 Radical Liberal Party (Radikale Venstre--RV) One of the four old parties, the RV's support remained around the five percent plateau after the original ICPP period, with the notable exception of the 15 percent it won in 1968 and held through 1973. During the 1968-1971 period, the RV formed a governing coalition with the Liberal Party (V) and the Conservative People's Party (KF) after a period of absolute socialist majority in the legislature. After this period, the RV resumed its balancing strategy between socialist and non-socialist blocs: the party joined the 1988-1990 KF-V government, after which they joined the government led by the Social Democratic Party (SD) from 1993-1994. Though a small party, the RV has used its pivotal position to influence both the moderate left and right parties, and to oppose the more extreme leftist and rightist parties.

205 Socialist People's Party (Socialistisk Folkeparti--SF) The SF was founded in 1959 by former Communist Party leader Aksel Larsen, who was expelled for taking an autonomous route from Moscow. Though the SF has never participated in cabinet, it supported the minority Social Democratic Party (SD) government from the outside in the 1966-1968 period when there was a socialist majority in the legislature, in what became known as "the red cabinet." Though the SD formed a minority government in a similar situation from 1971-1973, it was supported by the center and right in its negotiations for European Community membership against SF opposition (Thomas and Oakley, 1998: 385-386). The party's support waxed in the 1980s, with its legislative clout rising as high as 15 percent of the seats in 1987. Its strength waned somewhat in the 1990s, however, dropping to a seven to nine percent plateau.

2010 Communist Party (Danmarks Kommunistiske Parti--DKP) Originally founded in 1919 as the Left Socialist Party, the DKP took on its current name after joining the Comintern. Though moderately successful after the post-war period, the DKP ran into trouble following the Soviet invasion of Hungary, when party chairman Aksel Larsen criticized both that move and the idea that the DKP should "slavishly" follow Soviet directives. Larsen was expelled in 1958, and the DKP failed to place any deputies in the legislature until the "earthquake" election of 1973. After a brief stint of representation in the 1970s, the DKP failed to reach the two percent minimum alone. It has resurfaced as part of the Red-Green Unity List (Enhedslisten-de Rød-Grønne ˆERD), composed of the DKP, the Left Socialist Party (VS), and the Socialist Workers‚ Party. The ERD has taken three percent of the seats in two successive elections, in 1994 and again in 1998.

New Parties formed after 1962 and continuing to 2000

206 Progress Party (Fremskridtspartiet--FRP) The FRP was founded as a protest party in 1972 by Mogens Glistrup on a platform of demands for an end to taxation and bureaucracy. The party exploded onto the scene in the 1973 "earthquake" elections, when it drew 16 percent of the vote away from the four old parties to become the second-largest faction in the legislature. The party was largely ostracized and never joined a governing coalition, considered by the established parties to be an unreliable partner. The FRP's strength declined throughout the 1980s, briefly revived in the 1988 elections, and then sank again. The Danish People's Party (DF) split from the FRP in 1995, and the party just barely made the two percent cutoff for legislative representation in 1998.

207 Center Democrats (Centrumdemokaterne--CD) The CD was founded in 1973 by Erhard Jakobsen after a split with the Social Democratic Party (SD). Over the course of the party's political life, it has managed to control between three and nine percent of the seats in the legislature, and held cabinet positions in the 1982-1988 and 1993-1996 governments. "They see their role as a central and moderating influence able to cooperate equally with socialist and nonsocialist parties" (Thomas and Oakley, 1998: 82).

208 Christian People's Party (Kristelig Folkeparti--KRF) The KRF was founded with help from Norwegian and Swedish sister parties in 1970, largely as a reaction against the abolition of censorship, the relaxation of abortion laws, and the introduction of sex education in schools (Thomas and Oakley, 1998: 92). It first gained a small foothold in the legislature in 1973 with four percent of the seats. Legislative clout rose to as high as nine percent of the seats in 1982--when the party contributed to the cabinet -- but support dwindled afterwards. The party failed in 1994 to win the two percent of the vote necessary for representation in the legislature, though it did make the cutoff point in the 1998 elections.

209 Left Socialist Party (Venstresocialisterne--VS) The VS emerged at the end of 1967 as a splinter group from the Socialist People's Party (SF). The SF, after suffering from internal dissention over cooperation with the Social Democrats (SD), finally split in the waning days of 1967, with a third of the SF delegation turning the balance to bring down the Government. After a special party congress, the "right wing" of the party held a fractional majority, and the left wing walked out and formed the VS. Quickly mobilizing, they succeeded in getting on the ballots for the January 1968 elections, though the party never managed to obtain more than two or three percent of the seats in the legislature. In a symbolic attempt at ideological purity, the VS took the original name of the Communist Party (DKP) before it was changed after joining Comintern. Though the VS had not been directly represented in the legislature after failing to obtain the two percent minimum in the 1988 elections, it has resurfaced as part of the Red-Green Unity List (Enhedslisten-de Rød-Grønne--ERD), composed of the VS, DKP, and the Socialist Workers‚ Party. The ERD has taken three percent of the seats in two successive elections, in 1994 and again in 1998.

2012 Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti--DF) The DF was formed in 1995 by Pia Kjaersgaard and three associates after Kjaersgaard's ouster as party spokesman for the Progress Party (FRP) and in partial response to that party's organizational and policy chaos. The DF took eight percent of the seats in the 1998 elections, siphoning support from the FRP and the Conservative People's Party (KF).



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*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp on Party Research, June-August, 2000