KV17 – STORY # 6 – ELECTION COALITIONS
IN DANISH, KV17 IS SHORT FOR MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS 2017. ON 21 NOVEMBER, DANISH VOTERS WILL DECIDE THE POLITICAL COMPOSITION OF 98 MUNICIPAL COUNCILS AND 5 REGIONAL COUNCILS. THIS TAKES PLACE EVERY FOUR YEARS, AND ALWAYS ON THE THIRD TUESDAY IN NOVEMBER. THIS IS CAST IN STONE AND DIFFERS FROM ELECTIONS FOR PARLIAMENT, WHICH CAN BE CALLED BY THE PRIME MINISTER WITHIN THE PERIOD OF MAXIMUM FOUR YEARS. DURING THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN, I WILL POST A SERIES OF STORIES ABOUT SMALL AND LARGE ISSUES THAT DEFINE THE SPECIAL ‘DEMOCRATIC CULTURE’ OF MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS IN DENMARK.
STORY # 6
THE IMPORTANCE OF ELECTION COALITIONS IN MUNICIPAL POLITICS
Photo taken in the section of Copenhagen where I happen to live.
Take a close look at the photo above. The three municipal candidates at the front of the photo represent three different political parties: The woman at the top is from party B – the Social Liberal Party; the man in the middle is from party Å – the Alternative; and the man at the bottom of the lamppost represents party O – the Danish People’s Party. According to the red-blue grouping of parties normally used in Denmark, the two first parties mentioned belong to the red group [although neither would like to be labelled a socialist party], and the last party belongs to the blue group. This normally means that the B and Å parties will be ready to work together, while the O party will prefer to work with others not represented in the photo.
Before moving further into the inner workings of municipal politics, let me be clear with the two groups referred to – including the letters given to the various parties for election purposes in particular. The red group today cover the following five parties represented in Parliament: Social Democrats [A], Social Liberal Party [B], Socialist People’s Party [F], Red-Green Alliance [Ø] and The Alternative [Å]. The blue group cover the following four parties: The Conservative Party [C], the Liberal Alliance [I], the Danish People’s Party [O], and finally the Liberal Party [V]. Right now the blue group is in power at the national level, supported by all four parties in the group, but only with three of the parties represented in the governing coalition.
Now, when you look at the map of the mayors of the 98 municipalities of Denmark, based on the election outcome in 2013, you will find that the blue color shows the municipalities with a mayor from the Liberal Party. Blue seems to dominate the country, because they traditionally tend to dominate in the rural parts of Denmark, where we have large areas with relatively few people. The red color indicates municipalities with a mayor from the Social Democrats, and they dominate in the larger towns and cities of the country. Together, these two parties dominate municipal politics if we only focus on which party has a mayor. The third party with a large number of mayors is the Conservative Party, represented by the dark green color in the map. In fact, the Conservatives have more mayors than the number of votes they actually received. Finally, two municipalities have the color grey, meaning that the mayor comes from a Local List [the role of local lists will be explained in a separate story].
When you look more closely into the representation of parties in the 98 municipalities, it is clear that the two blocs – the reds and the blues – generally work together at municipal level, in the way they also do at the national level. It is very rare indeed that the big parties like the Social Democrats, the Danish People’s Party and the Liberal Party cross the line between the red and blue blocs. Considering that there are a number of very specific and very local issues at stake in many municipalities, this might come as a surprise. However, just like in the case of national politics, municipal politics is generally characterised by being consensus oriented. The large majority of laws and decisions – both in parliament and in councils – are approved with the backing from all or almost all parties.
But there are exceptions of course, and this is clearly reflected through the so-called election coalitions formed as part of the election campaign. An election coalition is not in any way a ruling or governing coalition, but simply a decision to work together to avoid that votes are lost or wasted – and to increase the chance of an alliance getting more candidates elected than if each party was on its own. This also means that if you vote for a party that ends up not getting enough votes to have a candidate elected, your vote will actually benefit a party and a candidate from a party you did not vote for! But remember, voters will know which parties have come together to form an election coalition, so there is no reason to complain!
We can use the municipality of Rebild in the northern part of Denmark [in pink color in the map above], as a practical example. Rebild only has a population of around 30.000, which results in 47 people per square kilometer, much less than the average of 131 for Denmark. The council has 25 members, and the result of the 2013 election was that 9 parties won one or more seats, with the Liberal Party [7 seats], the Social Democrats [4 seats], and the Social Liberal party [3 seats] being the largest. In addition to seven traditional parties being represented, two local lists also received enough votes to be represented. In the negotiations following the election, all 25 council members at the end agreed to vote for Leon Sebbelin from the Social Liberal party as the mayor of the municipality. Consequently, Rebild has a mayor representing only 3 of the 25 seats in the council – and out of the 98 municipalities, this is the only one with a Social Liberal mayor.
This could very well change after the 2017 election, despite Leon Sebbelin being a nice person with a good reputation. Much will depend on how the election coalitions work out, and there are four of them in the municipality of Rebild. Coalition #1: Social Democrats, Socialist People’s Party and The Alternative [all belonging to the red bloc]. Coalition #2: Social Liberal party, Conservatives and Danish People’s Party [one from red bloc and two from blue bloc]. Coalition #3: Liberal Alliance, Liberal Party and the Local List [all from red bloc]. Coalition #4: Red-Green Alliance and the Social List [both belonging to the red bloc].
Three of the coalitions mentioned fit into the general picture of “parties tending not to cross the blue-red lines”. But Coalition #2 is interesting enough to attract attention from political commentators in the national media. One headline stated: “If you vote for the Social Liberal Party in Rebild, there is a chance your vote could end up with the Danish People’s Party or the Conservatives.” Yes, technically this is possible, and it is of course interesting, because the Social Liberal party belongs to the red bloc, and although it is a centrist party to the right in the red bloc, at national level, the party has been very critical of the Danish People’s Party in particular.
In total, the Social Liberal party is represented in 76 election coalitions this year, and 17 of those are with parties from the blue bloc. This makes it the party crossing the red-blue line most often. The Social Democrats very rarely cross the line, but this year it actually happens in four municipalities with the Danish People’s Party, which generally is considered the most right-wing of the blue parties, although in some areas of social policy the party represents a rather ‘red’ profile. The Danish People’s Party has made coalitions with the Liberal Party in 49 of the 98 municipalities, so in general both of these parties also follow the traditional red-blue divide.
When all the votes have been counted, it will be possible to decide on the winners and losers of the election coalition game. This will of course include some of the traditional political parties, but it could also include some of the Local Lists.