Four historical Danish general elections – and one to come?

Electoral knowledge. Insights takes you back to four historical elections that have each made their mark on the political landscape. And we offer a suggestion as to what might make this year’s general election go down in history.


An election night is often a night of contradictions. When the votes have been cast and counted and we find out whether the election polls were right, some will have a lot to celebrate while others have nothing.

In 1973, the Danish Parliament (Folketinget) was left in tatters, but still the politicians found a way to collaborate. In 1990, the Social Democratic Party (Socialdemokratiet) won the election, but still failed to gain power. In 2001, decades of collaboration across the political centre were discarded, and Denmark got a right-wing government without the support of the centre parties. And in 2015, the value-based politics reached its culmination when many voters shifted to the right-wing Danish People's Party.

The 2019 election may prove to be just as historical. Several aspects point in that direction.

However, first we need to take a few steps back in time.

1973 - The Landslide Election

At the 1973 general election, Mogens Glistrup looked to be the great winner. The newly established Progress Party (Fremskridtspartiet) won 28 seats in the Danish parliament after the so-called electoral “earthquake” and became Denmark’s second largest party. The number of parties doubled with 10 out of 11 listed parties gaining seats in the Danish Parliament. The Centre Democrats (CD) founded by Erhard Jacobsen also did well in the election winning 14 seats. However, the four established parties - the Social Democratic Party, the Danish Social Liberal Party (Det Radikale Venstre), the Conservative Party (Det Konservative Folkeparti) and Venstre - the Liberal Party as well as the Socialist People’s Party (SF) - took a real licking in the election. The Social Democratic Party lost one third of its seats and the Conservative Party half.

At the time, the major upheaval in the Danish Parliament brought on by the many new parties and the massive shift in voting behaviour was by many regarded as the most significant shift in Danish political history. Thus, the election quickly became known as the “Landslide Election”.

“What made the election interesting was that Glistrup became known for his strong criticism of the tax system, his zero per cent tax rate and his provocative rhetoric. However, something had been going on long before he entered the stage,” says Jørgen Elklit, professor of political science at Aarhus BSS.

"In fact, the 1973 election served to prove the strength of our democracy "

Jørgen Elklit - professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS

He explains the changes in the traditional Danish class structure and how the old parties realised too late that they represented something which no longer existed. And how they could have gotten wind of this as early as 1965 when the so-called arts foundation debate (Kunstfond-debatten) took place. This debate saw the warehouse keeper Peter Rindal from Kolding lead a popular protest movement, which was mainly supported by ordinary members of the labour movement and demonstrated the gap between popular culture in the geographical periphery and culture in the capital city, and between those with low and high levels of education. A few years later, the voters protested yet again when the suggestion of lowering the voting age to 18 was rejected. At the same time, changes at the previous general elections could be observed with, among other things, the highest voter turnout since 1920.

“So although the 1973 election became known as a landslide election, people failed to see it as an expression of movements that had been latent for a long time. Seen from today’s perspective, the 1973 election has not really left a mark - apart from increasing the number of parties significantly and cementing a new two-dimensionality among voters in which redistribution politics was supplemented by value-based politics. Yet the latter failed to make a real difference to the work of the Danish parliament,” Elklit concludes.

He does, however, offer his take on what made the election important in historical terms.

“With twice as many parties than before, out of which many were rather odd compared to the old parties and SF by being either Christian, petty-bourgeois or wildly socialist, many people were worrying how it would all pan out.”

However, in the following years it became evident that everything would be all right. This was also established in Palle Svensson’s higher doctoral dissertation from 1996 exploring the so-called crisis and offering a debate and systems analysis of Danish politics in the 1970s (”Demokratiets krise? En debat- og systemanalyse af dansk politik i 1970’erne”). The dissertation debunked the notion of a crisis and described how politicians made it work despite some of them being quite difficult to deal with.

“In fact, the 1973 election served to prove the strength of our democracy. It could handle a party system left in tatters and it demonstrated that an inner circle of responsible politicians were able to find compromises between the two sides of the political spectrum. In other words, what mattered was not what the voters did, but how the election affected the ways in which the parties collaborated and became more flexible. This set a development in motion where the entire political system proved that it was capable of taking on the challenges and living with them without it turning into a parliamentary crisis,” says Elklit.

1990 - When Auken won the election and lost the power

The challenges continued throughout the 1980s - a decade characterised by great pragmatism. Among other things, the Conservative Poul Schlüter agreed to continue as prime minister although his foreign and security policies were rejected by parliament. He and the rest of the government were saved by the Social Liberal Party, who did not wish to contribute to topple the government with a vote of no confidence.

The 1990 election resulted in a strong gain for the Social Democratic Party led by Svend Auken, while the Conservative Party and the Social Liberal Party both lost seats. However, despite this - and despite the fact that there had long been alternative majorities outside the Conservative-led government and that some were hoping for this situation to change - the Social Liberal Party did not want Auken as prime minister. Thus Schlüter continued until the scandal of the so-called Tamil Case (Tamilsagen) in 1993, which marked the end of his term of power.

"The 1990 election was the last of a long series of elections characterised by a significant gap between what we now call the red and the blue bloc"

Jørgen Elklit, professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS

Auken’s failure to turn the great electoral gain into government power and ministerial offices laid the foundation for the party leader challenge in 1992 where Auken was ousted as leader of the Social Democratic Party. Along with the new leader Poul Nyrup Rasmussen came collaboration across the centre during the 1990s.

“It is even more important that the 1990 election was the last of a long series of elections characterised by a significant gap between what we now call the red and the blue bloc. After this election, two elections in the mid-1990s represented a transitional period. And then came the 2001 election in which the two blocs moved apart, the blue bloc won and Anders Fogh Rasmussen became prime minister. In this sense, the 1990 election was the last of the “traditional” elections,” says Elklit.


2001 – Immigration and welfare

Fogh’s 2001 victory marked an end to the traditional pattern where the Social Liberal Party was able to tip the scales. Now Denmark had a right-wing government that did not have to rely on the support of that party, and thus there was no more need for collaboration across the political centre.

“A key explanation of the significant changes that paved the way for a majority government was the immigration issue, which for the first time played a considerable role,” says Rune Stubager, professor of political science at Aarhus BSS.

"The Liberal Party succeeded in its strategy to close the welfare gap"

Rune Stubager, professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS

Back then, the immigration issue was not so much about Islam as it is today, but rather concerned the number of foreigners coming to Denmark and the behaviour of those who came. Until then, voters were concerned with the number of foreigners had not been able to mobilise support from politicians: “You’ll never be house trained,” Nyrup famously said to the Danish People's Party from the rostrum in parliament, and neither the Social Liberal Party or leader of the Liberal Party, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, were tough on immigration. However, Anders Fogh Rasmussen was.

“The stricter immigration policies now offered by the Liberal Party contributed to the Social Democratic Party’s losing traditional core voters in the election. Initially, many voters shifted to the Liberal Party and some to the Danish People's Party,” says Stubager.

Apart from immigration, welfare was another key issue dominating the 2001 election.

At the 1998 election, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen had promised not to touch the early retirement pension. This guarantee was dropped a few months later when the government and the right-wing opposition reformed the entire early retirement pension system. The Liberal Party’s role in this was conveniently forgotten three years later when the party changed its tune considerably. Now the party did not want to reduce spendings on welfare, but argued that things could be run more efficiently.

One of the issues that the Liberal Party seized upon was healthcare. Here, their election promises included shorter waiting lists and improved cancer treatment. Traditionally, the Social Democratic Party had been associated with strong health policies, but in 2001, there was a clear gap between the right-wing parties and the Social Democratic Party - in favour of the blue bloc.

"The Liberal Party succeeded in its strategy to close the welfare gap. This meant that the party was able to reassure voters that it would not create a social mass grave, as it had been accused of in the 1980s. This was an important factor that caused a shift of voters who no longer believed they could trust the Social Democratic Party. And with the Liberal Party saying that they would not make any further cutbacks and would also be strict on immigration in ways the incumbent government would not, the voters decided they might as well go for them. This led to a very different parliamentary situation with the alliance between the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party and Danish People’s Party (the VKO alliance), which lasted for 10 years,” says Stubager. He emphasises that the 2001 election was the first time that the dimension of value-based politics could be regarded as more than protest. However, the parties’ collaboration patterns could still primarily be captured in one dimension based on their positions on the politics of redistribution.

“Søren Krarup from the Danish People's Party has referred to the change of government in 2001 as a change of system. Even though this is probably an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the election left its mark: Denmark got a right-wing majority without the Social Liberal Party, and the right wing changed their immigration policies right from the beginning of their term in office. Since then, the policy in the area has been further tightened, which has made the Social Democratic Party shift its position. If the party sticks to this position, it will be fair to conclude that the change is permanent,” he says.


2015 - The breakthrough of value-based politics

The Social Democratic Party’s realisation seemed to have gathered momentum in the 2015 election, which seemed to continue along the same path as in 2001 in relation to key areas such as immigration.

“It was perhaps then that the Social Democratic Party came to the conclusion that the party could only win with a more right-wing profile on immigration,” Stubager points out.

At any rate, the Danish People's Party gained seats and became the country’s second largest party. Partly because of the immigration issue and partly because of a more generalised discussion about development or lack thereof of peripheral areas, which also included aspects of value-based politics.

"Voters changing parties was not a new phenomenon as it was in 1973, but an expression of a tendency that had been growing since the 1990 election "

Rune Stubager, professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS

”The election was the temporary culmination of the breakthrough of value-based politics as this was what the massive shift of voters from the Liberal Party to the Danish People's Party reflected. At the same time, the Danish People's Party had a clearer profile on redistribution politics. Soon after the election, the party agreed to change the rules of unemployment benefits, even though party leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl had previously suggested and voted for a reduction of these benefits himself along with the rest of his party. Some compare the election with the “Landslide Election” of 1973 due to the number of shifting voters, the setback of the old parties and success of the new parties. However, the difference was that in 2015 voters mainly switched between parties belonging to the same bloc. In addition, voters changing parties was not a new phenomenon as it was in 1973, but an expression of a tendency that had been growing since the 1990 election,” Stubager explains.

Most importantly, the strong growth of the Danish People's Party in the election showed the potential of some of the issues in value-based politics. This heralded the change in the parliamentary power structure that we may see this year, namely the cross-bloc collaboration between the Danish People's Party and the Social Democratic Party. Here it seems like the issue of the two-dimensions is now also reflected in the collaboration between parties.

2019 – another historical election?

From a long-term perspective, what Rune Stubager finds most notable is how we have gone from a one-dimensional political structure where competition for the voters revolved around the issue of redistribution politics to politics being just as much a struggle of cultural values. At the same time, there is not necessarily a match between the two. Voters might be right wing on one dimension and not on the other.

“For at least 30 years, we’ve seen the two dimensions reflected in voters’ behaviour. However, during the same period, the parties have cooperated on just one dimension. Today, certain things suggest that the two-dimensional structure will also be manifested among the the parties after this election. This means that we cannot be sure that the blocs will stick together with regards to forming a government,” says Stubager, who believes that the 2019 election could thus become even more important than the one in 2015.

"It’s one thing to agree on who becomes prime minister, it’s another to agree on the politics "

Rune Stubager, professor, Department of  Political Science, Aarhus BSS

The reason is that the so-called red bloc is apparently unable to collaborate on one of the two key dimensions i.e. the immigration issue. As a result, the Alternative (Alternativet) has stated that the party will not support the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Mette Frederiksen, as prime minister. On the other hand, the blue bloc contains the party The New Right (Nye Borgerlige), which is so concerned with the immigration issue that this will ultimately decide whether the party will back a right-wing government. Within the right-wing parties, redistribution politics is also posing a big issue. In part because the Danish People's Party is so far removed from the others in the discussion on pension age and have blocked reductions in the top tax rate, an issue which was core demand from the Liberal Alliance (Liberal Alliance).

“In other words, trouble is brewing regardless of who wins the election since the two-dimensional structure is now also reflected in the parties’ behaviour, if we are to take their words at face value. They may come to an agreement when the election is over, but if not, there’s a risk that we’ll return to a parliamentary situation similar to the one in the 70s and 80s. Because it’s one thing to agree on who becomes prime minister, it’s another to agree on the politics,” Stubager says and adds:

“The dire perspective is, of course, that we might end up with a deadlocked parliamentary situation like the one in the US. On the other hand, as voters have cared about both dimensions for a while and have been influenced by them in their behaviour, it’s probably quite natural that the two dimensions have made their way to the political parties and that they now need to juggle them both. In any case, we’ve become accustomed to a two bloc system that might not exist for much longer. This says something about how important value-based issues are for the way in which the country is run and for which policies are implemented.”

What is the Danish People's Party able to do that the Sweden Democrats is not?

Even though many European nationalist parties have never gotten into the good graces of their home countries, and Poul Nyrup Rasmussen famously declared that the Danish People's Party would never be house trained, the party has become important for obtaining a majority in the Danish government. So much so that today, the Danish People's Party is an accepted part of the political landscape and largely decides who should become prime minister.

“During the last few decades, what started as an offshoot of the Progress Party (Fremskridtspartiet), a populist protest party, has been integrated into the parliamentary system in such a substantial way that other parties have adapted to their viewpoints on immigration and have shifted so far right that they’re able to collaborate,” says Elklit.

“This is in stark contrast to Sweden where they’re sitting in trenches and fighting each other. There the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) are perceived as consisting of fascists and half-Nazis even though there are, in my opinion, only very few that can reasonably be characterised as such,” he states.

But how has the Danish People's Party succeeded in being regarded as an equal partner and having direct influence through collaboration with other democratic parties, when this is completely impossible for e.g. the Sweden Democrats?

“I think we need to return to the pattern established in the 70s and 80s to partly explain this situation. At this point, the Danish parties saw a need for and were able to find solutions more so than the Swedish parties have been able to up until now. This could be because the political rhetoric in Sweden is a bit more rigid, and people have firmer opinions on e.g. how women should be treated. In other words, this difference in mentality is reflected in the rhetoric used in politics and in other areas as well. At the same time, the Danish People's Party has realised that the party also needs to be a bit more cooperative - as it takes two to not just to tango, but also to collaborate in politics,” Elklit says. He adds that over one million people voted for the Sweden Democrats in the last election.

“Not all of these people are close to being fascists and Nazis. They may simply be worried about the general development and would rather vote for the leader of the Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Åkesson, than for the old parties that apparently don’t care about the thoughts and problems of ordinary people,” he says.

Written sources

  • 30 år efter jordskredsvalget, Politica, 35. årgang, nr. 4 (2003)
  • Danske Vælgere 1971-2015, 3. udgave, april 2016, ISBN 978-87-7335-204-5 (