The Ghost of the Danish People's Party
For decades, Denmark has been widely known for being among the first movers in harsh anti-immigrant policies. With the ever more influential Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) as a front-runner, the country has seen itself accepting radical anti-immigrant laws testing the outer bounds of international conventions. This year's national election, however, marked a turning point as the party suffered its first and severe parliamentary setback. The question remains whether this indicates an end to right-wing populism in Denmark. This article takes a deeper look at the roots of the Danish People's Party and its historical origins in order to analyse its lasting impact on Danish politics.
"I am Rasmus Paludan, the soldier of freedom, the protector of the weak, the guardian of society, the light of the Danes, the source of serenity, the hope of the north and the party leader of Hard Line." Propaganda video of the Hard Line party on YouTube, spring 2019
The words might appear as the ravings of a lunatic, and many people in Denmark think they are. Nonetheless, they are the ravings of someone who was invited to join the stage with the Prime Minister in several electoral debates and is easily one of the most renowned politicians in Denmark: the party leader of the far-right political party Hard Line (Stram Kurs) that was founded in 2017 and that just missed the parliamentary threshold in the 2019 electios. In numerous and widely viewed YouTube videos, "the light of the Danes" travels from suburb to suburb with a camera man hoping to stir controversy, branding the communities visited as “gay”, calling their inhabitants “societal losers” and setting the Qur'an on fire while dissing the prophet Mohammed.
Scenes like these became the theatrical backdrop for the Danish national election campaign of 2019 that threatened to test the boundaries of what has hitherto been the political comme il faut regarding immigration policies. As the events unfolded, many in Denmark wondered how it could possibly have come to this. Still, the controversial character of Paludan is but the latest example in a line of characters that for decades have spearheaded Denmark's politico-ideological move to the right.
From libertarian tax evasion to anti-Islamic nationalism
This trajectory traces its origins to the foundation of the Progress Party (Fremskridtspartiet) in 1972 by a tax lawyer named Mogens Glistrup – a highly intelligent but controversial figure. Glistrup had become famous for his libertarian values, endorsing fierce critique of the high tax level in Denmark while also bragging on national television about his own skills at avoiding paying any taxes at all.
An immediate success in the landslide election of 1973, the Progress Party began a slow collapse during the following decade as it disintegrated from within due to anarchical party structures and the incarceration of Glistrup on grounds of taxation fraud. After leaving prison in 1983, Glistrup – now a proud, self-declared racist – nonetheless returned to politics and began to attack the growing Muslim minority, who had been invited by the Danish state to come to Denmark as "guest workers" since the 1960s.
While the political establishment refused to deal with politics related to immigration – partly due to Glistrup's controversial rhetoric surrounding the subject – a growing minority of the Danish population started worrying about so-called "second generation immigrants". Public media had started focusing on this social group as examples of failed integration. Taking up a populist stance by appealing more to national-romantic feelings than facts, the Progress Party thus became increasingly xenophobic during the 1980s and early 1990s, demanding among other things a total stop on immigration from countries with Muslim populations.
The nationalist breakthrough
However, the chaotic conditions within party ranks continued to tear it apart resulting in the loss of parliamentary influence. After failing to gain a majority in the attempt to modernise the Progress Party, a group of four MPs led by Pia Kjærsgaard left the party as a result and founded the Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti or just DF) in October 1995.
Still stressing a highly nationalist, anti-immigrant agenda, Kjærsgaard replaced the critique of the welfare state with an outspoken EU-sceptic position and focussed all its attention on the protection of (partly Christian) "Danish values" and social welfare – both presented as threatened by Muslim immigrants and their descendants. This was combined with a successful personality cult around Kjærsgaard, or just "Pia", supposedly representing the "ordinary Danes" forgotten by the elitist political establishment.
Though entering Parliament with 7.4 percent of the votes in the 1998 national elections and a modest success in local elections the year before, DF was still in an outsider position and excluded from all influence by its political opponents. Opening Parliament in 1999, the then Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, a Social Democrat, famously stated that DF would never be a part of the political establishment. Likewise, other leading political figures ruled out cooperation with DF.
All of this changed dramatically in the 2001 elections, when opposition leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his Liberal Party (Venstre) became the largest party in Parliament in a landslide victory. The elections marked a breakthrough for DF, which gained 12 percent of the votes and became the parliamentary basis for the new centre-right government under Fogh Rasmussen. In addition, DF overtook the Social Democrat's role as the party that garnered the most votes from classical workers.
The yellow Denmark
After 10 years with a centre-right government, a new majority led by the Social Democrat and former MEP Helle Thorning-Schmidt formed a new multiparty centre-left government in 2011. Even before the elections, there were widespread rumours about a possible "flirt" between the Social Democrats and DF, as the Thorning-led party had spent the years in opposition trying to promote a harsher anti-immigrant profile. Whereas DF would never have supported a government led by Social Democrats in 2001, such new affiliations marked a clear change in the politics of both parties with DF moving even closer to a classical Social Democratic position on social issues.
DF did not support the new Social Democratic government, but the party's success continued, for example with its candidate for the European elections in 2014, Morten Messerschmidt, securing 26 percent of the vote through a staggering record of 605,000 personal votes.
The second breakthrough came at the national elections in 2015, when the Liberal Party Venstre formed a government again, now with Lars Løkke Rasmussen as Prime Minister. On this occasion, DF became Denmark's largest bourgeois party measured by votes (21 percent) – not least because of the preceding months that saw Syrian refugees walking on the main motorways in Denmark, which DF cleverly used to boost its image as the only party that could "solve the refugee crisis".
This election also clearly stated that DF was a party with its primary electoral basis in the rural and non-urban areas of Jylland and Sjælland (see Figure 1) even making some areas completely DF-dominated. This led to the use of the phrase “The yellow Denmark” – yellow referring to the colour used by political commentators to mark areas dominated by DF voters.
In spite of its electoral success, DF refused to join government ranks based on the experience of the 2000s, where the party enjoyed great influence by offering select support to a centre-right government implementing its favourite causes whilst being able to act freely on matters such as the EU and foreign policy.
A fatal dance with the Social Democrats
Figure 1. The map shows which party won the various electoral districts (marked by numbers) in the country's different parts (Landsdel) in the 2015 national elections. After the Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterne), the Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti) became the second-largest party followed by the Liberal Party (Venstre) and the socialist Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten). The success of the Danish People's Party ensured that the Liberal Party could re-enter the government offices with Lars Løkke Rasmussen as Prime Minister. In Denmark the outright winning of one of the 135 district seats is complemented by 40 proportionally distributed seats based on party/list votes. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Coming from what was the party's greatest parliamentary success ever, DF suffered a sheer disaster only four years later in the 2019 national elections, seeing the number of its votes fall dramatically from 21 percent to a mere 8.7 percent thus significantly reducing the party's weight in Parliament (se Figure 2). Similarly, its voice in public discourse has diminished dramatically.
How to explain such a dramatic change? In the months preceding the national elections in June 2019, DF and the Social Democrats (still in opposition at the time) were approaching each other. As DF party leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl stated in his speech at the 2019 annual party congress, if the Social Democrats were interested in closer collaboration, they had his phone number. In the run-up to the elections, the differences between the two where shrinking as each party tried not to be outdone by the other on central political issues.
For the Social Democrats, this meant supporting the so-called “paradigm shift” designed by DF to cancel the notion of integration in a wide range of legislations in favour of a policy aiming at so-called "re-emigration" of immigrants to their original countries. DF, on its part, vigorously tried to partake in the discussion on pension reforms brought to the campaign trail by the Social Democrats.
As the election campaign unfolded, DF as well as its contenders on the right desperately tried to keep immigration as the priority topic in the minds of the electorate. Contrary to all other elections in the preceding decades, this endeavour failed. Instead, climate, childcare and pensions came to dominate the debate.
As a self-proclaimed party for the elderly, DF had a rhetorical lead on the topic of pensions but was hopelessly lost when talking to the other end of the generational scale. On the matter of climate change, the party decided only after the election on whether to trust science or side with scepticism, clumsily choosing the former.
A "victim" of its own success, DF thus saw their main political asset – the party's once (too) radical anti-immigrant and asylum policies – successfully adopted by the Social Democrats while failing to deliver on other political issues.
The challenge from the right
This situation has posed a new challenge to the party (to which it still needs to find solutions), since the political challenge of DF historically has come not from the left but from the right.
DF always had to find a careful balance between being a populist, nationalist party while having a serious image at the same time. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many characterised it as a party for village idiots – a prerogative that was confirmed repeatedly by outright ludicrous remarks from local politicians and branch chairmen. With the chaotic experience from the early years of the anarchic Progress Party in mind, the party was therefore built up in a strict top-to-bottom hierarchy giving almost unlimited power to the small group of top leadership people.
Throughout DF's political life, the task of the party leadership has been to balance racist views held by its members with the acceptability of such views with the broader public, tactically playing on the divergence between party top and bottom to broaden the scale of acceptable racist opinions. At times, the leadership opportunistically endorsed radical statements concerning immigrants and Islam, when these resonated with the public, while the same leadership at other instances condemned such views, when they were deemed too extreme to be accepted publicly.
Yet, this double standard regarding extreme anti-Muslim and immigrant views has on multiple occasions led DF members to criticise the lack of democracy inside the party. On several occasions, such complaints have been met with expulsions. Nevertheless, throughout the 1990s and 2000s the only alternatives to the right of DF were to be found in leftovers of the Progress Party and Nazi-affiliated movements, all without parliamentary representation, giving DF quasi monopoly on anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant stances, which it insisted on calling “Danish values”.
Inspired by the German initiative bearing the same name, however, a Danish branch of PEGIDA was founded in Copenhagen in January 2015. Later changing its name to For Freedom (For Frihed), this initiative succeeded in associating different parts of the far right with each other under one umbrella somewhat acceptable to the broader public. As such, members of the old Nazi movement, dissatisfied members of the DF as well as islamophobes and right-wingers without organisational affiliations found a common meeting ground.
Alongside other minor initiatives on the right, For Freedom thus became a way of expressing discontent with the growing consensus-seeking style of the DF leadership with many people feeling that the party's policies were no longer radical enough.
Two new hard liners
Figure 2. The two maps compare the results of the 2015 national elections with those of 2019, and show which party won the electoral districts. In 2019, the Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti) lost all the districts that the party had won just four years earlier. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
When a minor split from the Conservative Party in September 2015 created the New Right (Nye Borgerlige), some of the above-mentioned groups joined forces with the new party running for elections. This party combines xenophobia with a serious disdain for democracy as well as an aggressive anti-government "liberalism" on economic questions. Promoting a range of demands such as legal discrimination against Muslims in violation of the Danish Constitution as well as a total stop to immigration has given the New Right party a far more fascist outlook than DF has ever had.
For some, the New Right was still far from radical enough in its approach to the perceived threat of Islam. One of those who felt this way was For Freedom's lawyer Rasmus Paludan, who consequently established his own party called Hard Line (Stram Kurs) in July 2017. With his provocative style, Paludan started to demand the actual deportation of all Muslims in Denmark without exception – by plane with or without parachutes – as well as a total ban on Islam. Although this was too much for the majority of people and led some to publicly condemn Hard Line as a Nazi party, Paludan nonetheless seemed to gain more and more support in the polls preceding the 2019 elections.
While Hard Line eventually failed to enter parliament with its mere 1.8 percent of the votes (the minimum is 2%), the New Right with its somewhat charismatic leader Pernille Vermund got 2.4 percent and thus 4 seats in parliament.
Politics of outbidding
As such, the development of DF from its birth in 1995 and until today has enabled a general shift towards the right in Danish immigration and asylum politics. With the New Right and Hard Line pushing the boundaries of Islamophobia from the right as well as a Social Democratic Party adopting an increasingly harsh stance on immigration, policies that were promoted by only DF just a decade ago are now widely represented in party programmes ranging from the far right to the Social Democrats. The Liberal and the Conservative parties have also gone in that direction respectively.
Yet, this year's elections could also be interpreted differently. Although having adopted much firmer immigration and asylum policies, the election of the Social Democrat Mette Frederiksen as Prime Minister also marks a clear rejection of what had become the absurd "politics of outbidding" during the now former centre-right government.
Ranging from ludicrous symbolism such as the Conservative Party's campaigns about fighting alleged "Nazi-Islamism" over the Liberal Party's bill suggesting to take away jewellery from newly arrived immigrants to DF's demand that all kindergartens should by law be made to serve pork to children, the electorate now seems completely fed up with such condescending and openly ridiculous policies. From this perspective, the 2019 elections also showed that right-wing populism in Denmark seems to have its limits.
A possible explanation for this could be that DF, throughout its entire lifespan, has been predominantly parliament-orientated. DF never dared to build lasting popular movements since this would have forced them into direct alliances with the aforementioned extreme right-wing segments from which the party has spent its entire existence to distance itself.
A fatal dance for the Social Democrats?
While DF and its supporters thus never had any institutional anchorage in popular movements or media, there have been some attempts to change this. The Christian currents of the party have affiliated with a secluded yet influential group of intellectuals around the century-old magazine Tidehverv. Out of this circle sprang various communities such as The Free Press Society (Trykkefrihedsselskabet) in 2004, seemingly promoting freedom of speech whilst spreading anti-Islamic views and conspiracies. Apart from such academic actions, an online news media called The Short Newspaper (Den Korte Avis) promoting anti-Islamic views was established in 2012. Highly disputed and rather isolated due to its bias, it only holds influence within right-wing circles.
Accordingly, despite DF's success since its emergence in 1995 and in light of the party’s recent (at least temporary) setback this does not seem to have paved the way for a right-wing avalanche. For the moment, the parties and organisations to the right of DF do not appear to become mainstream such as DF had managed over the past two decades. So far, the New Right and Hard Line are at worst nothing but an expression of dissatisfaction and are still without influence, generally considered a nuisance or laughing stock.
Still, their current position very much resembles the one that DF had in its early years – left out for now of the “good company” but ready to push the boundaries of political reality and anti-democratic policies even further. So far, their political opponents have refused to do what they did, when DF started to challenge them, that is to accept at least parts of their politics. A new “refugee crisis” or similar events could change all of that.
Turning the attention towards an overall ideological dissemination of views – within politics as well as in the public debate – DF has clearly played a crucial role in the acceptance of right-wing populist politics. Not only bourgeois newspapers, tabloids and right-wing parties have adopted huge parts of its rhetoric and anti-immigrant positions; these have seeped into the labour movement as well. As the Social Democrats moved into the government offices this summer, it was with the harshest line on immigration ever seen. While the old worker's party has since loosened up on its rhetoric, it clearly perceives that it cannot afford to move away from this general line, as all of the opposition from the Liberal Party to the New Right immediately would be at its throat.
In conclusion, while Social Democrats in the rest of Europe might look to Denmark as a way out of their stalemate, one should bear in mind the historical context for the current "success" of the Danish Social Democrats. Any victory won on the ideological premises of one's opponent carries in itself an intrinsic risk of backfiring. In order to save themselves from the fate that has befallen their European sister parties, the Danish Social Democrats have spent the previous decades deploying neoliberal solutions to economic questions. Now, clearly, they have also adopted the harsh anti-immigration policies of the far right. Taking a socialist stance, this scenario should not result in excitement.