The general election in Denmark on June 5 was a major disappointment for one of Europe’s most successful radical right parties, Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party, DF). With the small exception of 2011, this party has gained more votes in every election since its inception in 1995. Even after the charismatic founder Pia Kjærsgaard stepped down as party leader in 2012, the party continue grow. In fact, only four years ago, with (the less charismatic but still very popular) Kristian Thulesen Dahl as the party leader, DF became the second largest party in the country with 21.1 percent of the votes. For the first time, the party was bigger than the mainstream right. In this election, the support dropped significantly to no more than 8.7 percent. The party that dominated in several regions of the country in 2015 is no longer the largest party in any of the 92 nomination districts. The size of its parliamentary group shrunk dramatically – from 37 to 16 seats. Depending on the number of personal votes, either chair of the parliamentary group, Peter Skaarup, or the prominent spokesperson of immigration issues, Martin Henriksen, will lose their seat. The decline seems to be a combination of at least three factors: mainstream cooptation, radical competitors and unfavorable agenda.
First, and most importantly, mainstream parties coopting key aspects of the radical right’s nativist agenda have challenged DF at the electoral arena. While this is far from a new development, it reached a new heights when the governing liberal conservative party Venstre and the main opposition party the Social Democrats voted in favor of even stricter immigration policies – known as the ‘paradigm shift’ – earlier this year. Both Venstre and the Social Democrats have been able to re-gain a significant number of voters who voted for DF in 2015: 17 percent and 12 percent, respectively (see image above). The latter has specifically targeted the ‘authoritarian working class voters’ by offering a combination of left-wing economics and nativist immigration policies. Moreover, the two mainstream parties might have also benefitted from some voters being disappointed about DF not being willing to govern after the previous election. Despite being the largest right-wing party and several surveys suggesting that even a majority of its voters wanted to the party to enter office, DF decided to remain a support party of the government, as it was between 2001 and 2011, rather entering office.
Second, two new radical competitors have also successfully challenged DF electorally. Nye Borgerlige (The New Right, NB), which was founded in 2015, is more nativist and much more economically right-wing compared to DF. The party appeals to bourgeoisie constituencies and voters who are disappointed by the DF’s pragmatism. NB campaigned on ‘three absolute demands’: no more asylum-seekers, immigrants should be completely self-supporting and criminal immigrants should be deported immediately. In addition, the party is in favor for Denmark leaving the EU altogether. In the election, NB gained 2.4 percent making it the only new party in the parliament. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of its voters voted for DF in 2015. The other radical, or perhaps extreme, challenger, Stram Kurs (Hard Line, SK), emerged more recently and is largely a (social) media created Islamophobic single-issue party. The party wants to deport most of the Muslim population in Denmark and its leader, Rasmus Paludan, is well-known for provocative appearances in immigrant dense neighborhoods, including burning the Quran wrapped up in bacon. However, with 1.8 percent of the voters of which more than half (57 percent) previously voted for DF, the party did not pass the (rather low) electoral threshold of two percent. Yet, it will receive significant public funding (2 million Danish kroners annually) until the next election.
Third, in addition to radical and mainstream challengers, DF also suffered from a changing political agenda. While the immigration issue has dominated Danish elections for more than a decade (with the exception of 2011 when the financial crisis was more important), this election had a greener agenda. Surveys suggest that the share of voters being concerned with climate and environment increased from 24 to 46 percent between 2017 and 2019 – making it the most important issue of all. Even 38 percent of DF’s voters viewed green issues as one the three most important issues. In this sense, Pia Kjærsgaard’s attack on what she called ‘klimatosser’ (climate fools) after the poor result in the recent European Parliamentary elections may have been a major strategic mistake.
So what? Less power and less of a role model
The electoral result and the decline of DF might have several important implications. In Denmark, it means that power shifts from center-right to the center-left. With significantly fewer seats for the DF, there is no longer center-right majority in parliament. The Social Democratic leader Mette Fredriksen will most likely replace the liberal-conservative Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, though the latter tries to remain in office by offering the Social Democrats cross-block collaboration. In any case, DF has lost its pivotal position in the Danish parliament. Instead, the liberal party, Radikale Venstre, will be the parliamentary kingmaker deciding whether center-left or center-right should be in office.
Beyond Denmark, the result might influence the strategies of other right-wing populist parties, not least in the Nordic region. For a long time, DF has been the role model – especially for the Sweden Democrats – in terms of how to communicate; organize the party; deal with undesired members; and gain political influence by acting as a responsible support party. Now DF is actually the smallest of all Nordic right-wing populist parties. Sweden Democrats and the (True) Finns party are almost twice as big. SD is also much more successful in terms of building a strong membership organization.
Fragmentation of the far right
From a more theoretical perspective, the fragmentation of the far right raises interesting questions regarding the effects of ‘mainstreaming’ and the left-wing turn of established radical right parties. Mirroring the development in the Netherlands – another country with very low electoral threshold – it seems like there is political space for more than one radical right party, especially if economics become more important for this party family and existing radical right parties are no longer capable or willing to put forward a ‘blurring agenda’. If the radical right moves towards the center, we may see more splits between welfare chauvinist radical right parties appealing to ‘authoritarian working class’ (e.g., DF in Denmark and PVV in the Netherlands) and anti-statist radical right appealing to more bourgeoisie oriented constituencies (e.g., NB in Denmark and Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands).
The Danish development also addresses the discussion about the conditions under which the cooptation strategy by mainstream parties is likely to be electorally successful (i.e. reduce the support of the radical right). While the cooptation strategies rarely have worked well thus far – especially in a long-term perspective (Sarkozy re-gaining voters from Le Pen in 2007 turned out to be short-lived) – mainstream parties in Denmark might end up proving otherwise. For the time being at least, the radical right is squeezed from both ends resulting in massive fragmentation of its previous constituencies.