Scandinavia is the last bastion of social democracy, with widely admired societies that have acted as an inspiration for progressive and centre-left politicians around the world.
But these days, Nordic social democracy is in crisis. Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s defeat in last week’s Danish elections means that for the first time since at least the second world war Sweden is the only one of the four large Nordic countries with a social democrat party in power. Even there, the government ranks as one of the weakest on record.
The social democrats’ decline has been accompanied by a surge in support for anti-immigration, eurosceptic parties. Should the Danish People’s party— which came second, nearly doubling its support from the previous vote in 2011 — join a centre-right government, three of the four large Nordic countries would have such a group in power (Finland and Norway being the others).
There is a familiar progression in the way that the DPP, True Finns, Sweden Democrats and Norway’s Progress party have hollowed out the establishment parties. As with the DPP, they have started by stealing voters from the centre-left — the working class, the elderly — before taking them from the centre-right.
“It’s a worry and it’s a wake-up call,” says Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister.
For the centrist parties under siege across Europe, it must seem particularly dispiriting to watch a region known for contented, well-educated, generously protected voters opt for relative political upstarts.
So how have the Nordic populists been so successful? The DPP attributes much of its popularity to staying close to the concerns of real people, rather than being sucked into the game at “Borgen”, the Copenhagen complex that houses the Danish parliament and is the title of the popular television drama.
“It is very important to be a part of the people, not be such high-ranking politicians that don’t know what is going on in the population,” says Pia Kjaersgaard, who founded the party 20 years ago.
Still, something changed in this election. In four elections between 2001 and 2011, the party’s support stagnated in a band from 12-14 per cent. On Thursday, it shot up to 21 per cent.
Many credit this to Ms Kjaersgaard’s successor as party leader, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, who has softened the party’s image and sought to make its message less about immigration and more about issues such as public spending and the EU. At its core, the party promises to protect the generous Danish welfare state by restricting access to it. In essence, the party has captured Social Democrat voters by casting itself as the best defender of the system the Social Democrats built over decades.
“In Scandinavian countries there is a worry that we send too much welfare out of the country, that we need to think about taking care of our elderly people, our children, our sick people,” says Peter Skaarup, the party’s parliamentary leader.
For the populists, perils remain. The record of such parties joining government is sketchy, at best. Some political commentators argue that voters are often disappointed when they see how little influence populist parties can have. They point to the examples of Progress in Norway or the leftwing Socialist People’s party in Denmark.
The True Finns decided to test the waters in Finland but the DPP is more naturally sceptical of power, believing it can wield more influence as a support party in parliament rather than with the full responsibility of sitting in a coalition. How realistic that strategy is when the DPP garners the support of more than one in five Danish voters remains to be seen.
Whatever else, the elections in Denmark suggest that the tag of “populist” may be outdated for the DPP — its concerns on immigration and the welfare state lie close to the mainstream, especially as the other parties have moved towards it. Rather than the anti-establishment parties fading away, as many in Europe’s establishment hope they will do, the Danish experience suggests there may only be a strengthening in their support.
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