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A foreigner’s guide to understanding Danish politics in five minutes

Do you find the different political blocs, support parties and coalitions in Danish politics a bit confusing? Don’t know DF from SF? Speaker from spokesperson? Our five-minute guide to the Danish political parties might be a good place to start.

Denmark's parliament Christiansborg is home to a multitude of parties and ideologies.
Denmark's parliament Christiansborg is home to a multitude of parties and ideologies. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix

Danish politics is often difficult to understand for foreigners. Not only the language, but the number of parties, new parties that pop up, and sometimes disappear, the ‘red’ and ‘blue blocs’ and the consensus system that sometimes crosses these can often be hard to follow.

Foreigners in Denmark probably became more familiar with some politicians during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the faces of certain politicians – Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Health Minister Magnus Heunicke in particular – were regularly on TV screens.

But to really understand Danish life, a better understanding of the political system can help. This is as valid as ever during the current week, with local elections just over the horizon on November 16th – and many foreign residents eligible to vote.


What is the ‘blue bloc’ and ‘red bloc’?

There are currently 11 parties in the Danish parliament, and the ‘bloc’ classification commonly referred to in Danish politics broadly denotes whether they are right or left of centre.

The governing Social Democrats, for example, are the largest party and de facto leader of the ‘red bloc’, meaning if these parties get the most votes in a general election, the prime minister will come from the Social Democrats. This is the case with the current PM, Mette Frederiksen.

On the other hand, the Liberal (Venstre) party is the largest on the right wing or ‘blue bloc’. Former prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen was the leader of the Liberals when in office, though he has since left that party (more on this below). The second-biggest conservative party, the Conservative People’s Party, is edging closer to the Liberals in popularity and speculation suggests they could even get more votes at the upcoming local elections.

It should also noted that because these blocs include so many parties, they encompass a range of political ideology, even though they can be grouped into two main competing factions.

For example, the anti-immigration policies of the Social Democrats are far removed from the humanitarian-first approach of the far-left Red Green Alliance (Enhedslisten), while the moderate pro-EU stance of the Liberals is very different from that of the vehemently anti-immigrant Nye Borgerlige (New Right), who want to leave the EU.

Who are all the parties? Are there really 11 of them in parliament? 

The ‘legacy’ or traditional parties in Danish politics are the Social Democrats and Social Liberals (Radikale Venstre) in the red bloc; and the Liberals and Conservatives in the blue bloc.

When you look beyond these, you’ll find newer but well-established and in some cases quite powerful parties, before getting to more recently-formed groups and even those not yet qualified to run in elections (these don’t count towards the 11 total in parliament).

The biggest names in Danish politics beyond the four above are the red-bloc Red Green Alliance (Enhedslisten), and Socialist People’s Party (Socialistisk Folkeparti in Danish, commonly shortened to SF) and the blue-bloc Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti or DF in Danish).

The latter party, since its breakthrough in the mid 1990s, has played a powerful role as kingmaker on the right wing and its anti-immigration platform has hugely impacted the policies enacted by successive governments, including Social Democrat-led ones. Recent poor election results suggest DF’s power may be waning, for the time being at least.

The parties in the ‘blue’ half of Danish politics are rounded out by two relative newcomers: Liberal Alliance, a libertarian party formed in the 2000s; and Nye Borgerlige, founded in 2015. Nye Borgerlige, which does not have an official English name, combines small-government ideology with fierce opposition to immigration, arguably seeking to overtake DF by appealing to far-right voters through anti-Islam invective.

But that only makes nine parties. You said there were more?

There are two more – the environmentalist Alternative party, who first appeared in the 2010s but who are now waning in popular support and member numbers; and the Christian Democrats, an old but small party who gained parliamentary representation when their only MP Jens Rohde defected from the Social Liberals in January this year.

There are also parties who have been approved to run in elections but are not in parliament because there has not been an election since they were formed or approved (general elections are every four years). To be able to run for an election in Denmark, parties must get 20,182 so-called citizens’ nominations (vælgererklæringer) required to be rubber-stamped for inclusion on election ballots.

This is the case for two parties currently: the Vegan Party and the new party formed by ex-PM Rasmussen after he left the Liberals. Rasmussen named his new party the Moderates.

On the flip side, another party, the Independent Greens or Frie Grønne, does have members in parliament — mostly former members of the Alternative party who were elected while still in that group. But because the Independent Greens have yet to register 20,182 citizens’ nominations (vælgererklæringer), they cannot yet appear on general election ballots and their MPs are listed as independents (løsgængere).


How do so many parties get anything done? 

Each party appoints a roster of ordførere or spokespersons, broadly covering the same portfolios as the government ministries. In some cases, parties also have a politisk ordfører (political spokesperson) which is a more senior role. In the Red Green Alliance, which has a flat hierarchy with no “leader” title, the political spokesperson is effectively head of the parliamentary group.

The spokespersons can be invited to meetings with their corresponding government minister to negotiate legislation, depending on the parties involved. They can also summon the minister to a samråd (council) at which they can require ministers to answer questions related to a specified issue.

This is notably different to the titles given to MPs who are not in the government party in the UK, for example, where you will hear “shadow minister” used to refer to the opposition politicians. There are no shadow ministers in Danish politics as such, rather a series of spokespersons from different parties with mandates in the various areas of governance.

It sounds confusing, but feeds into the notion of consensus that runs throughout Danish politics. Even in times of polarisation and distrust, the Danish political system with its many parties is set up to force different factions to work together to find a middle ground, solution or agreement.

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Lawyers criticise Danish parliament for ‘special treatment’ of party leader

Two lawyers have accused parliament of double standards for deciding not to legally pursue Alex Vanopslagh, the leader of the Liberal Alliance party, after he was found to have breached rules relating to apartments provided to MPs.

Lawyers criticise Danish parliament for ‘special treatment’ of party leader

Parliament’s decision not to take Vanopslagh’s case to the courts suggests that the public and politicians are not equal before the law, according to two lawyers who spoke to broadcaster DR.

As an elected member of parliament, Liberal Alliance leader Vanopslagh was provided with a free apartment in Copenhagen and given parliamentary subsidies for “double household” (dobbelt husførelse) because he was registered as living at an address in Struer, West Jutland.

It later emerged he did not genuinely use the Struer address as his home and had thereby broken the rules. He later paid back the subsidies in full and returned the Copenhagen apartment.

“I’m not for one second in doubt that if this had been a municipal case, the municipality would have asked for the money back and reported him to the police,” lawyer Mads Pramming, a benefit fraud specialist, told broadcaster DR.

In 2019, parliament – including Liberal Alliance – voted for stricter rules on benefit fraud, including obliging municipalities to report certain types of cases to the police.

“It looks a bit funny that parliament is enacting strict control to prevent the public being paid money they are not entitled to, and giving municipalities an obligation to report it. And when it then comes to parliament itself, things are a lot less strict,” Pramming told DR.

Struer Municipality has ruled that Vanopslagh broke CPR (central person registration) rules by not living in Struer enough between 2020 and 2022 for it to be deemed his actual residence, as he claimed at the time.

Two left-wing parties, Red Green Alliance and Alternative, have called for the Præsidium – speaker’s council – in parliament to consider whether Vanopslagh should be prosecuted over the issue.

The speaker of parliament, Søren Gade, has told DR that the case will not be taken further. A previous case from 2015 has been cited as precedent for the decision.

A second lawyer, Michael Bjørn Hansen, called that stance “absurd” in comments to the broadcaster. Hansen also has expertise in benefit fraud cases.

“Based on some kind of objective consideration, this is certainly benefit fraud. Because he has cheated on some rules and received public benefits which he is not entitled to,” he said.

Equal status before the law “is not present here” unless parliament files a report with police, he argued.

“This is different to the demands parliament is making on municipalities,” he said.

The Præsidium is responsible for managing Denmark’s 179 lawmakers. Five members of parliament sit on the council, with the speaker being the senior member.

Vanopslagh has admitted to wrongdoing in the “double home” scandal and said his knowledge of the rules had been lacking.

“It’s my fault, I made a mistake. But other people make the judgement and say what I have to pay back,” he said earlier this week.

A number of legal experts previously told newspaper Dagbladet Information that the matter should be investigated by the police.

Vanopslagh received a total of around 75,000 kroner to which he was not entitled, according to DR.