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OPINION: Why do the names of Danish political parties have to be so confusing?

By giving his new centre party the same name as the right-wing party in neighbouring Sweden, Denmark's former PM followed the age-old local tradition of maddeningly confusing party names.

OPINION: Why do the names of Danish political parties have to be so confusing?
Former Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen speaks to press in May 2021. Photo: Nils Meilvang/Ritzau Scanpix

Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Denmark’s former prime minister, announced in 2021 that his new centrist party would be called Moderaterne, meaning “The Moderates”, meaning we’ll forever be having to distinguish it from the Swedish right-wing party of the same name.  

But it should perhaps come as no surprise that Rasmussen, who long led Denmark’s Venstre party, should give his party a name  that will generate misunderstandings. 

Venstre, which literally means “Left” and calls itself “The Liberal Party” in English, is neither left-wing nor liberal.

Indeed, under Rasmussen it was arguably the most illiberal, right-wing government in Danish history, passing laws to strip refugees of their jewellery, ban the burqa, and hold foreign criminals on a tiny prison island. 

The reason for Venstre‘s confusing name is historical. It was originally founded in 1870 as a union of groups and smaller parties opposing the then dominant conservative party Højre, the “Right party”. Det Forenede Venstre, or “The United Left” was largely dominated by agrarian groups and did not start evolving from being a traditional farmer’s party until well into the 1960s. 

Venstre isn’t even the the Danish party with the most confusing name.

Rather than being the rabid Marxist-Leninist outfit you might expect, Radikale Venstre, meaning literally “the Radical Left”, is the most pragmatic party in Danish politics, a centrist party willing to work with either the Liberals or the Social Democrats to pursue its sensible reform goals. 

The came about as a group which split from Venstre in 1905 over differences in military spending. At least its English name, the “Social Liberal Party”, largely reflects what it’s about. 

The names of the other parliamentary parties make more sense, Det Konservative Folkeparti, or “The Conservative party”, really is conservative, the Enhedslisten, literally “The Unity List” but calling itself the “Red-Green Alliance” is both far-left and environmentalist, “Liberal Alliance” is libertarian, and “Nye Borgerlige”, which calls itself The New Right, is arguably the ideological heir of the global New Right movement (albeit with a far-Right position on immigration). 

What about the Social Democrats? Some would argue they currently undergoing the same sort of shift across the political centre that Denmark’s Liberals underwent in the 1980s, when Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, the father of the party’s current leader, adopted a near-Thatcherite line, calling for a smaller public sector, greater harnessing of the market, and privatisation. 

It’s certainly hard to square the current party, which is tightening immigrant laws beyond anything the Liberals dared to do, with the Social Democrats as they were under the leadership of Poul Nyrup Rasmussen from 1993 to 2001. 

As for Rasmussen’s Moderates, it’s hard to know exactly how they will be “moderate”. 

The Swedish party adopted the name in 1969 when as the stuffy Högerpartiet, or “Right Party”, it was struggling to make any inroads against the then all-dominant Social Democrats. 

The Social Democrats are now fairly dominant in Denmark too, but so far, Rasmussen has been vague on policy, saying in his speech on Denmark’s Constitution Day on Saturday, that the party will attempt to unite Danes from different backgrounds and political viewpoints.

“Some prefer mackerel, and others prefer salmon. Some have long Danish pedigrees, others have only recently chosen to live in Denmark,” he said. 

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Question marks remain about Søren Pape despite party support

The Danish Conservatives on Saturday expressed unanimous support for chairman Søren Pape Poulsen despite the very disappointing election result on November 1st.

Question marks remain about Søren Pape despite party support

The Danish Conservative party expressed unanimous support for chairman Søren Pape Poulsen on Saturday, despite a very disappointing election result on November 1st.

It seems that Pape has weathered the storm for the time being. That is the opinion of political commentator Hans Engell, “but whether he is the leading conservative candidate in four years can probably be questioned,” he says.

Engell points out that Pape and the Conservatives are currently in the process of negotiating with acting Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen about the possibility of entering into a broad coalition government that stretches across the Danish political spectrum, an idea that Pape categorically refused to consider during the election campaign.

After the election, however, he has opened up to the possibility of a broad government.

READ ALSO: Danish government: Rasmussen backs coalition with traditional rivals

“The Conservatives could theoretically be in a government in a month. It is clear that during that phase, the party always gives support to its leading figures,” Engell says. “But of course, this does not mean that the critics and those who wanted a more thorough analysis are completely silent.”

No obvious successor

Engell points out that there is currently no obvious successor to Pape. The leadership of the Conservatives gathered at Egelund Castle in North Zealand on Saturday to discuss the result of the general election.

When Pape announced his candidacy for Prime Minister on August 15th, support for the Conservatives increased significantly. Barely a week later, the party had the support of 16.5 percent of the voters in an opinion poll by the analysis institute Voxmeter.

However, there followed a series of personal stories surrounding Pape’s private life and political judgment, and in the end, the Conservatives ended up with just 5.5 percent of the vote in the election.

Engell points out that the issues that the Conservatives focused on did not manage to set the tone of the election campaign. This applies to, among other things, the mink case and tax breaks.

“Many of the topics they ran on did not affect the electorate at all,” Engell pointed out.