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How an accidental email has put Denmark’s government in a spot of bother

An internal Social Democrat email, ostensibly planning a media attack on the opposition Liberals as a negotiation strategy, has caused a stir after being accidentally sent to a journalist.

How an accidental email has put Denmark's government in a spot of bother
Senior Liberal politicians Sophie Løhde (L) and Troels Lund Poulsen (C) have criticized the government over the leaked strategy. Photo: Martin Sylvest/Ritzau Scanpix

What exactly is going on here?

Have you ever written a furious email about your boss and then accidentally sent it to your boss? Or a text to your friend in which you say you’re going to break things off with a date, before unintentionally sending it as a reply to a text from the date? Then you’ll know the feeling of horror probably experienced by a Social Democrat staffer this weekend. It goes right to the depths of your stomach.

So what did they send?

An email about negotiating strategy in government talks with the opposition Liberals over a proposal to recalibrate state spending across municipalities, known in Danish as udligningsreformen.

According to reports, an email outlining strategy for the talks over the coming week – including a planned attack on the Liberals in the media – was not only sent to the ministers, spin doctors and party staff for whom it was intended, but also (accidentally) to a journalist at Jyllands-Posten. Seemingly, this was an innocent mistake. Oops.

Why is it a big deal?

The cloak-and-dagger tone of the email has riled politicians from other parties, not least the Liberals. It outlines instructions for “attacks” on the opposition party ad encourages the press advisor to finance minister Nicolai Wammen to find “stories on” the Liberals based on answers given during the negotiations, according to Politiken’s report of the fall-out.

The email outlines a “daily effort on Twitter, offensively and defensively” during the talks. The finance ministry, interior ministry and the prime minister's office are all reported to have been involved in coordination of the strategy.

And the fallout?

This is Denmark, so any political outrage against the government will probably feel measured and proportionate, depending on your basis for comparison. But the Liberals have had some choice words for their counterparts in the municipal spending negotiations.

According to Ritzau, the Liberals have accused the government of making the talks “completely toxic”, in a strongly-worded statement. They have also demanded an explanation from Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.

“You must at least expect the prime minister to face up and distance herself from the way some government ministers are negotiating,” finance spokesperson Troels Lund Poulsen said. Political spokesperson Sophie Løhde called the government’s tactics a “double-play in disguise”.

Is that it?

Despite its apparently clumsy origins, the matter could be a damaging one for the government, which is negotiating with the Liberals, a traditional political rival, over a key domestic policy for the first time since being elected last year. Being able to land agreements across the aisle is key for Mette Frederiksen’s minority government, which does not want to solely rely on left-wing parties to pass laws.

Social Democrat finance spokesperson Christian Rabjerg, in comments to Jyllands-Posten, denied a breakdown in trust between the parties after the leaked mail.

“There is no reason to be concerned that we could compromise confidentiality, which must of course be kept,” Rabjerg told the newspaper.

“The internal mail is written in direct language and expresses itself in a different way than you normally would. If anyone feels offended, I’ll be the first to apologise,” he said.

READ ALSO: Here's how many local politicians in Denmark took paid leave

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How likely is Denmark to have a general election ahead of schedule?

Analysts in Denmark say Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen could announce a general election as early as next week, despite flagging poll numbers.

How likely is Denmark to have a general election ahead of schedule?

Speculation suggests that Frederiksen will announce an election, which could take place by October but possibly earlier, when the Social Democrats convene next week for their summer group meeting. 

Legally, the next general election can take place as late as June 4th, 2023. 

But despite worsening polls, a general election in Denmark this autumn now appears likely due to increasing pressure on Frederiksen from other parties and heightened criticism of her government.

“It will not be possible to make any new, broad political agreements on this side of a general election. There’s no willingness to compromise between parties. So Danish politics is already frozen by the election campaign, even though it hasn’t been formally announced yet,” TV2’s political editor Hans Redder said last week.

Redder said it was “relatively probable” that Frederiksen will announce an election in August.

“The political season begins next week. Several parties will have their summer group meetings and start calling press briefings. So it’s just a question of which date Mette Frederiksen decides on,” Redder said.

The Social Liberal (Radikale Venstre) party, which is an ally of the government, has demanded Frederiksen call a general election by October 4th.

Although a new general election is not due until next year, the Social Liberals earlier in the summer said they wanted an election by October after the government and Frederiksen were severely criticised earlier this summer in an official inquiry into the mink scandal.

The Social Liberals have the ability to bring down the government by withdrawing their support for Frederiksen and bringing an no confidence motion in parliament, although it’s not certain they would actually do this.

In addition to the mink scandal, Frederiksen’s government has been damaged by a high-profile case centred around leaks at intelligence service Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste (FE), as well as broader criticism of her leadership style.

“(Frederiksen) really needs some wins and we have not heard much about what their election platform will be. That will come when the 2030 (political) plan is presented,” political analyst Hans Engell told news wire Ritzau.

“Bad opinion polls are not conducive to an early general election and it doesn’t seem as though there is complete clarity over their 2030 plan. They are probably keeping all their options open,” he said.

Talk of an early election comes despite poll numbers looking as bad for the government as they have at any time since they came to power in 2019.

A new opinion poll by Voxmeter for news agency Ritzau on Monday gave the Social Democrats their worst showing since 2015. 

The ‘blue bloc’ — anchored by the Liberal party (Venstre) and the Conservative party — command 50 percent of the vote according to the latest poll.

Meanwhile, the government’s ‘red bloc’ holds just 47.5 percent. 

The demands that Frederiksen hold elections by October at the latest come from the Social Liberals, also of the red bloc.

The ‘bloc’ classification commonly referred to in Danish politics broadly denotes whether parties are right or left of centre.

‘Blue bloc’ parties will usually work together in parliament and back the leader of the Liberal party to be prime minister if they can command a majority after a general election. The ‘red bloc’ will usually support the Social Democratic leader to become PM, as is currently the case with Frederiksen.

READ ALSO: Danish PM Frederiksen loses majority in ‘neck and neck’ new poll