Why Denmark’s electoral system means a Quran-burning extremist could enter parliament

Denmark's electoral system can enable fringe groups to enter the legislature. That means a controversial anti-Islam party leader is among those who could take a seat in parliament after Wednesday's general election.

Why Denmark's electoral system means a Quran-burning extremist could enter parliament
Rasmus Paludan, carrying a defaced Quran, in Denmark's Nørrebro neighbourhood on June 4th. Photo: Philip Davali / Ritzau Scanpix

***REMINDER: Follow the results of the Danish election live with The Local from 8pm on Wednesday***

Three new parties are seeking to enter the Danish parliament in tomorrow’s general election.

Of the three, only the Klaus Riskær Pedersen party looks to be doomed to failure, while two far-right parties, New Right and Stram Kurs, look to be in with a reasonable chance of gaining a small handful of seats each.

The latter party’s leader, Rasmus Paludan, has espoused vehemently anti-Islam rhetoric and has a criminal conviction (he has appealed) for inciting racial hatred. He is known, amongst other things, for burning and desecrating the Quran at demonstrations in areas with large minority ethnic populations.

Such action could have resulted in criminal charges in Denmark as recently as 2017, when the country abolished a long-standing blasphemy law. But Paludan could soon be voicing his views in parliament.

Meanwhile, an established party with a very low vote share and no current MPs, the Christian Democrats, also have cause for optimism about the election outcome.

So why are parties with marginal vote shares close to making it into parliament?

The short answer is: Because Denmark uses an electoral system of proportional representation to divvy out its 179 seats (normally referred to as mandates in Danish).

In the general election, Denmark is divided into 3 provinces (landsdele) and 10 greater constituencies (storkredse). These divisions are used to calculate how many MPs are elected in the various regions of the country.

The aim of this is to ensure fair geographical representation, with parliament reflecting local differences in party vote shares.

Although calculations are less than straightforward, the overall idea of Denmark’s system of proportional representation is to give, for example, a party that gains 10 percent of the votes 10 percent of the 179 seats in parliament.

This is where another important factor comes into play, however – the parliamentary threshold (spærregrænse).

Set at 2 percent, parties who receive a lower national share of the vote than this threshold do not qualify for parliamentary representation.

For those who just about reach it, their number of seats might look like a lot for what may seem like a fringe vote – but they have done enough to earn their slice of representation, according to the system of proportional representation.

A Voxmeter poll dated June 4th suggests that, while the Claus Riskær Pedersen party, polling at 0.4 percent, is going to fail to enter parliament, the two other new parties – Stram Kurs (1.6 percent) and New Right (1.8 percent) – have a realistic chance of hitting the threshold.

Stram Kurs and New Right have both polled at over 2 percent in previous polls, with New Right showing at 2.1 percent just a day ago and Stram Kurs at 2.6 percent late last month.

That means the contentious Paludan and a handful of others who subscribe to his views can take seats at Christiansborg after the election.

Meanwhile, the Christian Democrats have existed for decades but had seen their support almost vanish since the 1990s. They have made an unlikely comeback in recent weeks under charismatic stand-in leader Isabella Arendt.

According to the latest poll, the Christian Democrats, currently with 1.6 percent (they polled 0.8 percent in 2015) may fail to reach the magic 2 percent despite Arendt’s efforts. However, they could actually make it into parliament anyway.

That is because they could gain what is known in Danish as a kredsmandat (constituency seat) by receiving a very high number of votes in the same locality (the exact number varies between constituencies).

Christian Democrat candidate Kristian Andersen could achieve this in the West Jutland greater constituency, a heartland of the party, according to a projection reported by Altinget last week.

And there’s further good news for Arendt – scoring a local kredsmandat would mean her party also qualifies for its share of the other type of seat, the nationally-divided tillægsmandater (supplementary seats).

In other words, a high vote share in a single town or area can secure very small parties like the Christian Democrats a number of MPs reflecting their national vote share – even if that vote share is under the normal 2 percent threshold.

According to the Danish parliament’s website, the election threshold was introduced in 1953 in order to prevent too many small parties entering parliament, thereby complicating the legislative process.

But for the fringe parties in the 2019 general election, there appears to be cause for bullishness.

READ ALSO: What you should know about the parties on the fringes in the Danish general election

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Power shifts in Denmark with the giving of gifts

Transfer of power between governments can be associated with antagonism, ill feeling and tension. In Denmark, it is accompanied by the exchange of gifts.

Power shifts in Denmark with the giving of gifts
Mette Frederiksen hands Lars Løkke Rasmussen his new cycling jersey. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen / Ritzau Scanpix

The quirky tradition was continued on Thursday as Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen took over from predecessor Lars Løkke Rasmussen as head of government.

Tradition in Danish politics dictates that all outgoing ministers, including the prime minister, exchange gifts with their successors on the day portfolios officially change hands.

The gifts, often referred to in Danish as drillegaver (‘teasing gifts’), are normally chosen with an element of humour in mind, while not forgetting to reference political opposition.

As the keys to the PM’s office were exchanged at Christiansborg Palace, the seat of parliament on Thursday, Rasmussen handed Frederiksen a pair of gloves and blue trousers from a set of overalls.

“I’m now handing over a Denmark in top form. And that must be looked after. I know will you do that, Mette,” Rasmussen said.

“One of the keys to achieving that is for us Danes to pull on our working gear,” he added.

In response, Frederiksen gifted Rasmussen, known for his enthusiasm for bicycle racing, a polka-dotted cycling jersey, making reference to his tendency to “break away from the pack” during the election campaign.

“I hope you will be spending a lot more time cycling in future,” Frederiksen joked as she gave her predecessor the jersey.

Also noting that she had probably not seen the last of the Liberal (Venstre) party leader in politics, the new PM had warm words of tribute for Rasmussen, who has served two separate terms as the head of Denmark’s government, from 2009-11 and 2015-19.

She thanked him for a being a decent opponent and for “everything you have done for Denmark”.

Rasmussen, who was not short of joking remarks himself, said he “had a habit of handing over the keys to a Social Democrat”.

After losing the 2011 election, he gave then-Social Democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt his government’s budget repurposed as a handbag, while Thorning-Schmidt gave Rasmussen a bus ticket.

Roles were reversed in 2015, when Rasmussen, having regained power, gave Thorning-Schmidt a selfie stick and received festival tickets in return.

The Danish tradition of giving gifts while handing over power is a modern one, having gradually emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Transition of power used to be very formal,” DR’s political commentator Bent Stuckert told Politiken in 2011. That is evidenced by the below video, which shows Anker Jørgensen making way for Poul Hartling in 1973.

The 2019 version, coming at the end of a long negotiation period to form government, continued Denmark’s overtly friendly approach to handing over the keys to power.

READ ALSO: Here is Denmark's new Social Democrat government