Mette Frederiksen | The new Social Democrat 

The Danish PM, who sought to marry traditional welfarist policies with anti-immigrant rhetoric, has won a narrow election victory 

November 06, 2022 01:51 am | Updated 01:51 am IST

Mette Frederiksen.

Mette Frederiksen. | Photo Credit: Sreejith R. Kumar

A centre-left coalition led by the incumbent Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, 44, has won the general elections in Denmark by the narrowest of margins: one seat. Ms. Frederiksen’s Social Democrat party and its allies won 87 seats in mainland Denmark, and three out of the four seats from Greenland and Faroe Islands, to reach the 90 mark in the 179-member Parliament.

Since her coalition won, Ms. Frederiksen could have continued in government, with the same Cabinet as before. But during the campaign, she had promised to forge a broadly centrist coalition that would bring together both the left and the rightwing, arguing that political unity was paramount in times of uncertainty. So she resigned on November 2 to form a new unity government. She is expected to hold talks with former Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and his newly formed centrist party, the Moderates, for government formation with all the mainstream parties represented.

Born to a typographer father and a mother who worked as a teacher, Ms. Frederiksen got into politics quite early, working with trade unions. She became a Member of Parliament in 2001 at the age of 24, and swiftly rose through the ranks of the Social Democrat party, serving as Minister of Employment from 2011 to 2014 and as Minister of Justice from 2014 until she became the party leader and led the Social Democrats to first place in the 2015 elections. It was after the 2019 elections that Ms. Frederiksen became Denmark’s youngest Prime Minister, heading a minority government supported by a ‘red’ bloc of the Social Liberal Party, the Red Green alliance, and the Green Left.

Danes were largely happy with Ms. Frederiksen’s management of the pandemic and the lockdown, and she would likely have served out her full term if it weren’t for the minks. In November 2020, Ms. Frederiksen ordered the mass culling of Denmark’s entire population of 17 million minks after some animals were found infected by the coronavirus. She took the decision amid fears that the viruses found in the minks could mutate into strains that would render the vaccines — then under development — ineffective. The cull annihilated Denmark’s $750-million mink industry — the largest in the world — leading to scores of business closures and job losses. Subsequently, it emerged that Ms. Frederiksen did not have the legal cover to take such a decision, sparking nationwide outrage. Although she was cleared of charges that she deliberately misled the public and avoided an impeachment trial, one of the parties that supported her minority government, the left-leaning Social Liberals, threatened to bring a no-confidence motion unless she called for an early election. Short on numbers to survive a no-confidence motion, She did so on October 5.

Bucking the trend

Interestingly, while the Social Liberals, the party that precipitated the elections, fared poorly, losing nine seats, not only did Ms. Frederiksen lead the Social Democrats to their best result in two decades, she also bucked the European trend of social democratic parties going into terminal decline by ceding ground to the extremists in either wing.

It would, however, be a mistake to read this election as an indication that Denmark has somehow escaped the wave of rightwing populism sweeping across Europe. In fact, Ms. Frederiksen’s Social Democrats are no different from, say, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) in its stance on immigrants. Her singular political innovation is to marry traditional Social Democratic welfarism — state spending on healthcare, education, pensions, unemployment benefits — with systematic pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment. With this approach, she neutralised the appeal of far-right parties such as the Danish People’s Party (DPP) and the newly formed Denmark Democrats, whose primary appeal was their promise to end the flow of immigrants into Denmark, a country that already ranks 20th out of 27 EU countries in per capita figures of receiving asylum seekers.

In the U.K., for instance, it is a rightwing Tory such as Priti Patel or Suella Braverman who bats for the Rwanda Plan. In Denmark, however, it is the Social Democrats under Ms. Frederiksen who are pursuing a plan to pack off asylum seekers to Rwanda. While many have bemoaned this departure from authentic Social Democrat values of equality and pluralism, Ms. Frederiken considers anti-immigrant sentiment to be a baseline of political engagement in Denmark, and increasingly, all over Europe. She has urged Social Democratic parties all over Europe to accept this reality, and believes that it is only by shifting right on immigration politics while staying left on economic issues that they can regain the ground lost to rightwing and leftwing populists and stay politically relevant in the years to come.

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