Lessons from the Danish Parliament: Why breaking up big parties is not a panacea for democratic discontent

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Disclaimer:This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

It is often argued that more parties are needed if voters are to regain faith in democratic systems. A troubling political tendency in Denmark tells a different story.

Since the latest general election in 2019, 13 members of the Danish parliament have left their political parties. That is almost three times the average number of party defectors within an election period – and there are still 1,5 years left until the next ballot. The rapid increase in party defectors means that the group now holds more seats in parliament than most parties represented there. According to Uffe Elbæk, two-time independent MP and former minister of culture, defectors are an opportunity to revitalize representative democracy. Others fear that too many loose cannons on the legislative floor might blow up the entire political system.

The decline in trust in liberal democracies is an issue so well documented, yet so far from resolution, that not even global climate change could feel envious of it. Westminster-style majoritarian democracies fare particularly badly in these statistics; the proportion of citizens in the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US expressing dissatisfaction with democracy has doubled since the 1990s. In contrast, proportionally representative systems like Denmark have seen a marginal increase in levels of satisfaction. The apparent gap has made some scholars point to parties—especially big parties — as the root cause of the democratic malaise. Elitist, unrepresentative, and outdated. Critics argue that reversing the growing apathy towards democracy requires that dominant parties be broken up and voters presented with more options that can adequately cover the range of values existing in today’s society. The problems in majoritarian systems have become so prevalent that author Lee Drutman, in an article in Foreign Policy, wrote that “the only way to break this destructive stalemate is to break the electoral and party system that sustains and reinforces it”. Unfortunately, bi-partisanship in the UK and US only seem to grow its momentum. In the meantime, Denmark has pressed the speeder on party proliferation. More party defectors are just the beginning.

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Few have done more to break the party doom loop than Uffe Elbæk. The two-time independent MP is currently representing the Danish “Free Green Party” (De Frie Grønne), but before making his parliamentary debut, the 67-year-old was skeptical of joining the ranks of party politicians. Throughout the 1980s, Elbæk was evolved with several far-left political organizations, but decided to leave because of the rhetoric, “We were always against one thing or another, but not really for anything”. He spent the latter part of the decade away from political work. Instead, he immersed himself in various cultural entrepreneurial projects.

Elbæk recalls one particularly memorable evening in 1989. He was standing on the Red Square in Moscow celebrating the successful launch of a satellite transmitted rock concert, that he and his friend from “Next Stop Soviet” had organized. A few years later, Elbæk established an undergraduate degree aimed at giving students the skills to put on similar half-hazardous events. “The Chaos Pilots”, as the university course is called, is still available at a number of prestigious institutions in Denmark today.

Uffe Elbæk returned to elected office in 2001. This time he was representing the Social-Liberal Party (Radikale Venstre) as a member of the city-counsel of Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest municipality. He quickly made a name for himself when he helped elect Aarhus’ first right-wing mayor in 84 years, effectively ending The Social-Liberal Party’s decades-long tradition of supporting a socialist candidate. But Uffe Elbæk was popular among voters which soon landed him in the party top with a seat in parliament to boot. When the Social-Liberal Party joined the governing coalition in 2011, the former activist became Denmark’s new minister of culture.

Accusations of nepotism marked the beginning of the end of Elbæk’s favour with the Social-Liberal leadership. The eventual decision to leave the party was not one Elbæk rejoiced in. He describes the split like that of a romantic relationship, “you are waiting a long time to see if things will get better, and when you finally leave, you wonder if you should have done it sooner”. The Social-Liberals’ vote against earmarked paternity leave was what finally made him sign the divorce papers. The gap between him and the party had become irreconcilable.

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The story is a familiar one according to Helene Helboe. She is a professor in political science at Aarhus University and has studied the emergence of party defectors in Danish politics from 1945 until today. Her research has found that defections have historically increased in periods of high levels of internal conflict within parties. These conflicts have happened as long as Denmark’s electoral college has existed, increased individualization among voters has meant, however, that it is now easier than ever for politicians to leave their political parties when conflict breaks out. The individual is the locus of the neoliberal society. The rise of social media is the obvious example of this, but voter behaviour has not gone unaffected; Almost half of Danish voters do not vote for the same party two elections in a row. Combined with Denmark’s representative electoral system, which makes barriers to entry very low for new parties, politicians are able to leave an established party without fear of ending their political career. Helene Helboe explains how the risk of defection can have a mitigating effect on parties and help them from steering too far away from their campaign promises.

Party defectors are political entrepreneurs that can help breach the gap between career politicians and the population. It was with this attitude that Uffe Elbæk approached his role as an independent MP after leaving the Social-Liberal Party, “independents can revitalize the political system because new parties spring out of them”, he said. Elbæk eventually joined the ranks of party defectors turned founders himself. He gave his party the fitting name “the Alternative” (Alternativet) to symbolise the shift he intended to create in Danish politics.

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The preparations to launch the Alternative had begun the moment Elbæk had left the Social-Liberals. Not three months later, he was standing in front of a full press corps flanked by banners labeled “Alternativet” in bold green lettering and a new party co-leader, Josefine Fock, who had no political experience to speak of. The two had no political programme to show the awaiting journalists, instead, it was announced that the Alternative was intending on using ‘crowd-sourcing’ to develop their party manifesto. Elbæk followed through on his promise, and in the spring of 2014, 700 Danes would participate in so-called ‘political laboratories’ throughout the country.

The results of the effort were presented on May 24th in Aarhus, the city where Uffe Elbæk had made his first punch at the political status quo as a city council member. Among the Alternative’s more innovative suggestions were meat-free Sundays and the criminalisation of all artificial colouring in supermarket goods. The new party program also included some rather sensible proposals, however, not least the most ambitious climate change mitigation strategy ever presented in Denmark at that point. The Alternative stormed into parliament in the 2015 general election. Elbæk’s Alternative had won 9 seats. Overnight the defection-group had become larger than century-old governing parties including The Social-Liberal Party. The 2015 general election saw the Social Democratic-led government replaced by a right-leaning coalition, but the Alternative was determined to keep pushing the boundaries of policymaking. They bear the brunt of the responsibility for climate change moving from the periphery of the public agenda into the centre of attention for all legislators across the ideological spectrum. Nine MPs— eight of whom had no prior elected experience managed to create lasting political change. At the height of their success in 2015, it was tempting to wonder what progress was achievable if Denmark had no big parties at all.

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There is one problem, however. A majority of Danes do not want more party defectors. Helene Helboe in her study finds that the average voter believes that a politician should renounce their seat if they leave their political party. The finding is a peculiar one in the light of voters’ affinity for politicians who stand up to their party and points to a precarious relationship between party defection and democracy. “Defectors are breaking their contract with the voter, that is the reality”, said Helene Helboe. When voters elect an MP, it is done under the assumption that the politician belongs to a political party. This puts high demands on defectors’ ability to serve the interests of their constituents better than they would have within their preexisting party framework. This is no easy task. On any given day in the Danish parliament, there are easily 15 committee meetings, open questionings, and a dozen votes in session – not to mention the MP’s personal responsibilities towards campaigners and constituents. Often times obligations happen all at once.

For an independent MP without the option to delegate duties to fellow party members, that means picking and choosing. Uffe Elbæk remembers what it felt like having to come up with an opinion on the spot. He would try to raise his hand in the open questionnaire. Whatever the speaker responded, Elbæk’s intuitive reaction would decide his vote. MPs have an idle opportunity to improve the conditions of policymaking if they remain completely out of the party system according to Uffe Elbæk. But even the democratic zeitgeist brought about by the new micro-parties might be a short-lived remedy. New parties have a tendency to gain outstanding success early on in their lifetime but will break apart soon thereafter says Helene Helboe. The new defector parties fail to build a loyal voter base like some of the big established parties because they do not possess the same ideological foundation. When the political tides eventually change, little is keeping voters – nor politicians – from leaving as quickly as they came.

***

For The Alternative, the change of tides came with the election in 2019. During the campaign, Elbæk was criticised for announcing that he wanted to be prime minister. He explains the episode now as a half-hearted attempt at drawing attention to the sustainability agenda. At that point, he had already known for 6 months that he was going to step down as leader of The Alternative. After the election when it became clear that the party had lost half their seats, that plan was expedited.

The Alternative was founded with the aim of breaking the elitist party machinery but ended up dying of the same illness it was trying to cure. After Elbæk stepped down, Josephine Fock became the sole leader of the party, but soon articles with anonymous accusations about Fock’s tyrannical leadership style and abuse of staff started emerging. “The situation was completely surreal,” said Elbæk, who urged the membership base to reconsider their choice of party leader. They did not. So, he and three other MP’s resigned from the party. The decision reduced The Alternative to 1 parliamentary member and made Uffe Elbæk independent yet again.

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Helene Helboe warns that the cycle of parties exploding onto the scene and then imploding could pose a democratic problem if the pace of defections keeps increasing. In Italy, voters experience the consequences of this political reality now. Upwards of 25% of members of parliament in Italy defect from their parties each election period. If Italian MPs ever intended to keep faith with an unofficial contract with their constituents, that contract has been reinterpreted beyond recognition; Italians effectively do not know what their vote will get them. The gaping accountability deficit is not the only consequence of hyper-defections, maintaining a stable governing coalition has proved challenging as well. Rarely does an Italian government survive more than 13 months before losing majority support.

The ghost of fascism scared the Italians off allowing any party rooted in ideology to gain too much power. While it is scarcely reasonable to fault them for this, the plethora of everchanging parties in the Italian parliament with ambiguous party objectives has made the number of defections explode. It is simply too easy to jump from one party to another if no one knows what the parties actually stand for. Big established parties maintain a contemporary justification in providing voters with an ideological beacon, which makes it possible for the normal citizen to keep an eye on politicians and whether they keep to their election promises or not. More than that, large parties facilitate stable and effective governments that allow the state apparatus to function altogether – the biggest determinate of popular trust in a political system.

Two-party systems have a proven difficulty in producing satisfied voters, but people should be careful not to see political plurality as a button that one ought to keep turning until faith in democracy is restored. Defectors from big parties feed into the erosion of ideology which is making new parties more fragile. Italy has lived the consequences of this for decades, but the Italian case is far less exceptional than one could hope. In the present moment, if two MPs were to leave a supporting party of Denmark’s current one-party government, they would lose their majority.

Since leaving the party he himself created, Uffe Elbæk has started a new political collective with three former MPs of the Alternative. In May 2021, The Free Green Party secured the necessary signatures to run for election in 2023. The hope is that the new party will foster a better political culture than its predecessor.

Pictures to include in the article (originals by Anne Sandager):

By Anne Sandager

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