On the night of Denmark's 2015 general election, the exultation of Kristian Thulesen Dahl was palpable as he strode into the election night party in Denmark's Christiansborg Palace. In three years as leader, he had managed to push his party ahead even of the Liberals, the traditionally biggest party on Denmark.
He stood there as the room applauded, his legs apart in an almost rock-star pose, rocking on his heels with barely containable energy.
Six years later, The Danish People's Party has the support of just 5.4 percent of voters, barely more than a quarter of what it had at its peak, and only slightly above the number who support New Right, a rival populist party. The party lost 21 out of its 37 seats in last June's election.
Last week, a county councillor for the party publicly called on Thulesen Dahl to resign and make way for a successor.
“I think he should realise that his time as the person at the top is short. I don't believe that he can turn around the declining trend,” Hans Sønderby told the Avisen Danmark newspaper.
After Sønderby was pilloried by other party members, he announced on Wednesday that he was resigning from the party.
Thulesen Dahl himself raised the question of his successor on Sunday in an interview with the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, and although he still says he hopes to lead the party to the next election in 2023, this is now looking vanishingly unlikely.
What has the Danish People's Party represented in Denmark?
Few populist parties in Europe have had as much success in winning real changes in policy. The 12 percent of the vote it won in 2001 meant that the government of Liberal Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was dependent on it for his government's majority, something the party ruthlessly exploited to drive through what it boasted was “Europe's strictest” immigration policy.
After the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy at the end of 2005, the party stepped up its criticism of Islam, Muslims and immigrants, reaping the electoral benefits, at the same time as skilfully using its position as the kingmaker party to drive through further policy changes.
“Overall, if you look at the 20 years, they have certainly affected immigration and integration policies and to some extent also law and order,” says Karina Kosiara-Pedersen, an associate professor at Copenhagen University. “They have also had an impact on discourse — how we talk about immigrants and integration.”
The minority Liberal government which ruled Denmark from 2015 to 2019 was even more dependent on the support of the party, and its immigration minister Inger Støjberg kept her government's refugee and immigration policy firmly on Danish People's Party territory.
Where did it go wrong?
Some argue that the party's problems stem from the decision not to go into government after its 2015 triumph.
“Was it wise for them to stay out?” Kosiara-Pedersen asks. “They're definitely being punished for it. Voters mentioned it as a specific reason not to vote for them in 2019. The party chair said it was a mistake.”
But she questions whether the party would have done better in government, than it did by steering policy from the outside.
“They had a great experience staying out of the government from 2001 to 2011, so it was a very feasible option,” she adds. She also questions whether the Liberal Party ever offered coalition terms the party could have accepted. “To what extent were they actually invited?”
Losing turf to the big centre parties
A big part of the party's problems come from decisions taken within the Social Democrats and by the Liberal parties. First the Liberals adopted a populist approach to immigration policy, fronted by Støjberg, which made it difficult for the Danish People's Party to lead on the issue.
Then after Mette Frederiksen took over the Social Democrats in 2015, she pulled the party sharply to the right on immigration, and also competed with the Danish People's Party on its second key policy areas or retirement and elderly care policy, winning back many of the working class voters it had lost to the Danish People's Party.
“If we look at the opinion polls, it seems as if the Social Democrats gained both when talking about stricter immigration and integration, but in particular when they had their early retirement policy proposal half a year before the election,” Kosiara-Pedersen says.
“If you look at the election, you should look at that policy as well, because that's where we saw some movement towards the Social Democrats.”
Losing turf to populist challengers
Remarkably, the Danish People's Party is now polling just one tenth of a percentage point above the New Right party, which in just five years has managed to win four seats in parliament by outflanking the Danish People's Party on the right on immigration, pairing this with a more libertarian economic programme.
Meanwhile the Hard Line party, headed by the Danish lawyer Rasmus Paludan, won nearly two percent of the vote in 2019 on a policy platform which included the forcible deportation of almost all non-Western residents.
While these parties have taken a chunk out of the Danish People's Party's support, Kosiara-Pedersen points out that even together, the three parties only won 12.9 percent of the vote in 2019, meaning 8.2 percent went of the 21.1 percent the Danish People's Party won in 2015 went back to mainstream parties.
The Covid-19 joker
The hope for the Danish People's Party was that the Social Democrats' support parties on the liberal left would slowly force the government to adopt a less restrictive immigration policy, allowing the Danish People's Party to again start scoring points on the issue.
“They're really squeezed between two stones,” Kosiara-Pedersen argues of the Social Democrat's position. “They need to at least appear to have really strict policies, but they also need to cater to the parties to the left of them.”
The strategy seems to be to continue pushing strict policies on limiting the number of of new immigrants into Denmark, but to try to reward support parties by being more generous and supportive of those who have already arrived.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has so far allowed the Social Democrats to postpone a reckoning on immigration.
“I think Covid-19 has sort of halted all these things,” Kosiara-Pedersen argues.
In the longer run, however, she suspects the populists will end up benefiting. “It might still be the Danish People's Party who are drawing the longest straw.”
What happens now?
As much as Thulesen Dahl wants to avoid it, there is likely to be a leadership battle. But it is hard to see how any of the party's established faces, such as the group chairman Peter Skaarup, or its former lead MEP Morten Messerschmidt, will be able to revive its fortunes.
With its established party infrastructure and committed membership, it probably can bounce back eventually, if not to the heights seen in 2015. But it might not.
“They are suffering, and it's a little bit like the bandwagon effect,” Kosiara-Pedersen says .”If you're successful, more people want to be part of you, but if you're not, people start to fall off the wagon.”
The party's future depends, she believes, on how they deal with the coming leadership battle, and work to keep members on side, and also on whether the New Right manages to become a broader party, attracting other more heavyweight figures to back up its charismatic leader Pernille Vermund.
“If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said of course they're here for the longer run,” she adds. “But voters have become a lot more volatile, and political entrepreneurs can make a difference.”