Stumbling left-wing partnerships and a Cold War drama are preoccupying the social democrats while the rest of Europe scrambles to solve the euro crisis
Having to horse-trade with two parties to the left of the Social Democrats has made the first two months of government a mixed experience for the new prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, as she battles to pull through the day-to-day business of her government.
The Socialist People’s Party (SF) is a part of the government and leader Villy Søvndal became foreign minister after the September election. In spite of its somewhat archaic name, SF is a pragmatic left-wing party corresponding more or less with the Green Party in Germany.
The Red-Green Alliance was formed in the wake of the Cold War, when a jumble of small parties joined forces to pick up the pieces of orthodox Socialism. They are supporting the government from the outside and their 6.7% share of September’s vote secured a historic result for the Danish left.
Recent years have seen both parties move significantly towards the centre ground of Danish politics. SF-leader Villy Søvndal took on the left wing of his party on issues of economics and migration to bring the party into government for the first time in their history. However, the price tag for cabinet seats has been quite heavy and it has lost a lot of support since turning right. The Red-Green Alliance has cunningly taken over the position vacated by SF, shedding its traditional Marxist rhetoric in favour of a stronger focus on the unemployed, public sector cuts and softer social issues.
Interestingly, working with the Red-Green Alliance outside the government has so far been a lot smoother for the Social Democrats than the partnership with the more pragmatist SF inside the government.
First of all, SF’s minister for business and growth, Ole Sohn, has found himself at the centre of a troublesome Cold War drama, haunted by his past as chairman of the Danish Communist Party from 1987 to 1991.
Mr. Sohn’s past was, of course, well documented before his elevation to the cabinet. Footage of a young Sohn on the podium with Erich Honecker waving tanks down Unter den Linden in Berlin to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the GDR was frequently used by the right wing during the recent election campaign to warn voters. But recent media coverage has focused on the transfer of money from the Soviet Union to the Danish Communist Party and possibly to Sohn himself, and the minister‘s incoherent explanations have only hindered his attempts to preserve his reputation.
As the minister is repeatedly forced to respond to Cold War issues from a previous era, he is spending considerably less time talking about business and growth, and the matter has somewhat overshadowed the government’s agenda.
Furthermore, SF is realising the truth in the old quip by New York Governor Mario Cuomo that “Campaign is poetry, governing is prose”.
During the campaign, SF, plagued by poor poll numbers, dished out a series of promises – such as a 40% price cut on public transportation – that the government is now having a hard time funding, leaving voters infuriated and the opposition scoring easy points.
The most acute risk now may be a revolt from SF-backbenchers unused to the toil and compromise of government. However, the government has struck a budget deal with the Red-Green Alliance that was widely hailed as a sign that the ruling coalition is more viable than it first looked. The former old line Marxists took a decidedly pragmatic view on things, choosing to accept former untouchables like funding for the war in Afghanistan in return for admissions from the government on public sector cuts and other highly symbolic left-wing issues.
So far Mrs. Thorning-Schmidt’s experience of working closely with the left has been a mixed bag. While she’s successfully struck deals with the far left, the leftist party inside her government might be her biggest threat.
A contribution to State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network's Social Democracy Observatory
Kristian Madsen is editor of Politiken
Socialist People’s Party