Tough weeks ahead as election winner Frederiksen seeks to build new Danish government

Denmark's likely next prime minister, Social Democrat Mette Frederiksen, faces tough negotiations in the coming weeks to form a minority government backed by parties with conflicting demands on climate, economic and immigration policy.

Tough weeks ahead as election winner Frederiksen seeks to build new Danish government
Mette Frederiksen the day after the general election. Photo: Philip Davali / Ritzau Scanpix

The opposition Social Democrats won Wednesday's general election as expected, ousting Liberal Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen's minority government after several of his key allies suffered scathing losses at the polls, including the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party which saw its score more than halved to 8.7 percent.

The Social Democrats emerged as the biggest party with 25.9 percent of votes and have adopted much of the far-right's hardline ideology and rhetoric on immigration, like most other parties in Denmark, pulling the rug out from under the far-right.

Its weak showing deals a blow to the party that has heavily dictated immigration policy in Denmark for two decades.

The Social Democrats and three other left-wing parties now hold a majority of 91 of 179 seats in parliament, while the right-wing won 79.

But Frederiksen has indicated she hopes to build a single-party government — common in Denmark under its system of proportional representation — that would rely on other parties on the left and right for support depending on the issue.

She is expected to want to collaborate with the right-wing on immigration, and with the left on most other issues.

But her left-wing allies are expected to pressure her heavily to accept their conflicting demands in exchange for their support.

“There will be intense negotiations … on the conditions for allowing Mette Frederiksen to become prime minister,” University of Roskilde political scientist Flemming Juul Christiansen told AFP.

She “will now have to demonstrate whether she has the shoulders of a stateswoman, capable of rising above old conflicts to seize the opportunity voters have given the centre-left,” the centre-left daily Politiken wrote in an editorial, predicting “a war of nerves”.

Rune Stubager, a political scientist from Aarhus University, ruled out the possibility of a grand coalition.

“The distrust on both sides is too high,” Stubager said.

Climate tops concerns

The left-wing parties were swift to set their terms.

One of their top demands, and one of voters’ main concerns, was aggressive action on climate.

“We want an ambitious climate policy,” the head of the main green party, the Socialist People's Party, Pia Olsen Dyhr, said on election night.

Her party was one of the big winners on Wednesday, clinching 7.7 percent of votes, up from 4.2 percent in 2015.

And the Red-Green Alliance, which won 6.9 percent of votes, warned: “To form a government with our support, we want a new direction for the welfare state and the climate.”

Frederiksen can also expect thorny dealings with another key ally.

The centrist Social Liberal Party — the Social Democrats biggest ally with 8.6 percent of votes — is opposed to the Social Democrats' tough stance on immigration and has differing views on economic policy.

Frederiksen said after her election victory that the Social Democrats wanted “to negotiate broadly.”

“Several parties are seeking a constructive cooperation.”

The parties were expected to begin their negotiations later Thursday, Danish media reported.

Earlier in the day, Rasmussen tendered his resignation to Queen Margrethe.

She was then scheduled to consult with party leaders about who should build the next government.

The queen is broadly expected to task Frederiksen, a 41-year-old party veteran who made her debut in parliament at the age of 24, with the job.

Frederiksen has previously served as employment minister and then justice minister during the last Social Democratic government, in power from 2011-2015.

READ ALSO: What we learned: Seven things to know about the Danish election result

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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