A new Borgen-ing? Proportional representation and the Danish election

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 19th June 2015

Yesterday saw Danes go to the polls. Popularised by the TV show Borgen, Danish politics is fascinating in all sorts of ways, but most of all, we can learn much from its model of democracy.

Much of the attention around the election focused on the battle between the centre-left ‘red bloc’ and the centre-right ‘blue bloc’. These two blocs of parties loosely cooperate, all promising to work together.

Opponents of proportional representation (PR) often claim that PR leads to parties coalescing around similar ideas, blurring the lines between parties. But the bloc system shows this isn’t the case. While there was some criticism about a lack of clear signals regarding who would go into coalition with whom in the UK election, in countries with experience of coalitions and hung parliaments, parties signal who they will or won’t work with to some extent. Danish parties taking this to its logical conclusion of separating into two clear groups.

For example, in Denmark, a voter can vote for the centre-left liberal party, the Radicals, safe in the knowledge that they will only back a government led by the Social Democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt, as these are both red bloc parties.

All in all, 52.3% of the vote in this election was cast for blue bloc parties, whereas 47.7% of votes were cast for red bloc parties. The blue bloc got the most seats and will now most likely form a government, so an overall majority of Danish voters voted for their government, unlike most elections under First Past the Post.

At one and the same time, voters have a clear choice of governments, but also the capability to influence the shape of that government through voting for different parties within the bloc.

Say you want a centre-right government, but are particularly opposed to immigration, but broadly supportive of the welfare state. You might vote for the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party.  Or you might be less concerned about the welfare state, hold liberal views socially and favour tax cuts, so you might vote for the Liberal Alliance.

Each bloc has five parties in it, and with a highly proportional electoral system with a national threshold of just 2%, there is much room in Denmark even for minor voices.

There is also vast room for variation within parties. The three-tier electoral system is complex, but from a voter’s point of view they can easily vote for individual candidates in their area, meaning it is voters – not parties – who choose the majority of representatives.

Nor are the blocs monolithic once elected, and relations between the parties can be much more informal than the bloc system might suggest. Denmark, in common with other Nordic countries, has something called ‘negative parliamentarism’ whereby rather than parties being asked to give a vote of confidence in a government, they are asked whether they are against a government. This may seem a semantic difference, but it allows parties to say they are simply not opposed to a new government rather than actively supporting it.

For this reason most Danish governments are actually minority ones (based on coalitions). In fact, Denmark has not elected a majority coalition government since 1998 and hasn’t elected a majority single-party government since 1903. 

Parties are willing to work across blocs, too. The four ‘old’ pro-European parties (the Social Democrats, agrarian and right-wing liberal Venstre, the Conservatives, and the Radicals) have traditionally worked together on EU issues regardless of who was in government (though the new government looks set to take a decidedly more anti-European view).

In the last government the Social Democratic Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, worked with centre-right opposition parties rather than supporting parties to her left on issues such as welfare reform, in order to guarantee they would last beyond her time in office. During the last centre-right government, the left-wing Socialist People’s Party even once voted for a centre-right budget.

This is a mature politics, composed of parties who fight hard against each other but who are willing to work constructively together in the national interest on issues on which they agree.

Oh, and turnout? 85.8%. Down from 87.7% in 2011.

Borgen Election

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