Skip to content

#10 Compromises and alliances

On 5th June 2019, Denmark celebrated its 170th Constitution Day.

This Constitution Day was special since it was also the country’s election day. On the 5th of June, people in Denmark went in large numbers to polling stations in schools and other public buildings to cast their votes and decide the composition of the Parliament (the “Folketing”) for the coming four years.

The Danish election system is based on proportional representation, allowing parliament to reflect the various political orientations in the society through a multitude of different parties. The elections period last a mere three weeks, campaigns focus on the issues, TV adverts are basically non-existent and over 85 percent of the electorate turns out to vote. In the 2016 report by the Electoral Integrity Project, an independent research group affiliated with the Harvard University and the University of Sydney, Denmark’s election process was rated the best in the world. In fact, all the Nordic countries fared well in the study.

Climate change as an election issue
One of the main themes in the 5 June election was the climate change policy. Virtually all political parties now present themselves as green, environmentally friendly, ready to face the realities of climate change, and to do what is necessary to mitigate it. Especially for the young generation, this is very high on the agenda. Many young people, including my own three children, have become vegetarians – not because they do not like meat but to put a lighter carbon dioxide footprint on the earth. My two grown-up sons really like being in Ghana, but they hesitate to visit us, because they only want to go where they can travel by train. Many young people in Denmark and other countries, which are contributing excessively to the climate change problem, are thinking and acting along the same lines.

Negotiations are ongoing on the formation of the next government but regardless of the outcome, is likely to be a minority government as it has been the tradition during most of the past century. Due to the proportional election system, none of the parties are particularly large. Since the former election in June 2015, nine parties have been represented in Parliament plus two representatives for Greenland and two for Faroe Islands. In the June 5 2019 election, all these parties plus another four were running. Governments are usually coalition of parties which rely on the support of one or two additional parties. If only one party is in government, it has to navigate from case to case to form alliances of support.

The Danish political system: compromises and alliances
The key words in the Danish political system are compromises and alliances: compromises imply that stakeholders are ready to sacrifice some of their ambitions to obtain something more important in the national interest. One party will not be able to govern alone, and very rarely will one party manage to have all of its agenda accepted.  

This is further reinforced by the fact that the composition of municipal and regional councils is independent of the composition of the Parliament. Before the election, 53 Mayors in a total of 98 municipalities represented a party which was not part of the government coalition, and four out of the five regional councils were also led by an opposition party. Mayors in Denmark come from nine different parties, which are not entirely the same as the nine parties represented in Parliament. In a few cases people have established their own local party which has won only in one municipality.

The tone in the political debate – especially during an election campaign – can be harsh, but politicians and members of political parties are careful not to go too far, as they will most likely have to work closely on particular matters soon after the election. The system built on minority governments and a more complex political fabric where many parties share power contributes to ease the tensions between the various population groups and ensures that as many views as possible are heard and reflected in the political decision making.

The December 2019 referendum in Ghana and its implications
In Ghana, the referendum in December 2019 is to amend Article 55(3) of the 1992 Constitution, which will legalize the participation of political parties in decentralized local governance. This has the potential to introduce some of the same sharing of power and inclusive governance that limit the unfortunate implications of “the winner takes all” political system as the Danish experience has shown over the years.

If accepted, the proposed amendment of the Constitution may also contribute to improving the accountability of government officials to the population and building more trust between government and citizens. Although no reform is simple and straightforward especially when there are a lot of factors at play, the constitutional amendments may eventually also pave the way for improved delivery of public services and an increased willingness to pay tax to sustain them.