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In Copenhagen, the Radical Left Just Beat the Danish Social Democrats for the First Time Ever

Recent elections in Denmark saw a sharp rise in vote share for the Red-Green Alliance, making it the biggest party in Copenhagen. The result shows that the ruling Social Democrats can’t keep letting down Danes who want action on the climate and soaring rents.

Line Barfod, the Red-Green mayoral candidate, and political spokesperson for the party Mai Villadsen during a rally for the party. (Enhedslisten / Facebook)

The dominant story of the Western left in the last two years has been decline from the high watermark of post-crash electoral radicalism. From Syriza to Podemos, parties have fallen short of either winning power or delivering in office — or, in the recent case of Germany’s Die Linke, slid backward from already weak positions. Left organizations are dealing simultaneously with the rapid escalation of structural crises from public health to the environment to geopolitics, huge changes in their operating environment, and the limits of their current support base.

But there is another story in Europe, of smaller left parties on a quieter rise. In Belgium’s last election, while anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang rose to become the second largest party in wealthy Flanders, the poorer Wallonia region saw a surge for the Belgian Workers’ Party (PTB). Swedish prime minister–designate Magdalena Andersson will require the Left Party’s support to pass a budget, and the Socialist Left Party has a similarly decisive role in Norway, even though neither of these parties are in government. And this month in Denmark, the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) — a party comprised of socialists, communists, trade unionists, and environmentalists — celebrated its best ever results in municipal elections.

One major story in Denmark’s November 16 elections was a good night for the mainstream right at the expense of further-right anti-immigrant forces. But on the Left, the Red-Green Alliance continued its trend of outflanking the Social Democrats, who lead the national government. In the Frederiksberg municipality, adjacent to the capital, the party beat the center-left Social Democrats by over 6 percent.

And while it didn’t secure a big enough margin to win the Copenhagen mayor’s office, it did break new ground by becoming the largest single party in the Danish capital, with 24.6 percent of the vote. Remarkably, this was the first time in over a century that the Social Democrats did not top the ballot. In both regions, the Social Democrats aligned with other parties to lock the Left out of power — but their grip has been seriously weakened.

“This means us wielding power in a concrete way,” says Enhedslisten’s Copenhagen strategist Jakob Ruggaard. Council-level and smaller-scale mayoral wins have put Enhedslisten in positions of influence over critical briefs covering housing, climate, and infrastructure in the city. And critically, adds Ruggaard, this creates a “green majority” at the policy level.

Livable City

Housing and climate dominated the urban electoral battle. While Copenhagen does not have the acute housing crisis familiar to cities like London or New York it is affected by the same broad trends — foreign-based speculators buying up property, stagnant wages, and rising rents forcing some people out and forcing others into ever-poorer conditions, and a growing sense of losing control.

The Red-Green Alliance has drawn criticism from the center-left for demanding more public housing whilst opposing existing development plans. But the radical-left party strongly disputes this charge, in turn accusing the Social Democrats of housing plans that will do nothing to fix affordability. In this election there were two flash points: a proposal for expensive housing on common land in the city, and a similarly unaffordable new housing on Lynetteholmen, a planned artificial island. Enhedslisten has set the policy agenda, proposing a rent ceiling and rent regulations for new builds, demanding that 75 percent of new housing is affordable, and responding to mass protests around the developments.

Rent-controlled public housing exists in Copenhagen, but in insufficient numbers to stem the problem. Meanwhile many rent-controlled units have been earmarked for destruction and privatization. Enhedslisten campaigners do not yet have hard data to support the view that this played a significant role in the election. But they cautiously believe that a coalition of downwardly mobile and insecurely housed young middle-class people, and working-class urbanites in threatened public housing, fueled their surge this election.

“Young voters are terrified,” says Ruggaard. “They want to live in the capital but the waiting lists are impossible. And people in rent-controlled housing who I spoke to felt stigmatized and isolated, stereotyped as living in places overrun by crime and poverty and migration.”

Migration Battle

This brings up another dimension to Enhedslisten’s slow rise in both parliamentary and local elections. Under successive leaders including current prime minister Mette Fredriksen, the Social Democrats have steered hard to the right on immigration and asylum. Even among Danish left-wingers who reject this position on moral grounds, you will sometimes hear the grudging view that it may have prevented the Right from taking power in the short term, even if ceding ground does more harm than good electorally in the long term. And whilst Enhedslisten is a pro-migrant party, there is internal disagreement about whether to prioritize this issue — and how — in a hostile landscape.

But the Copenhagen campaign went hard on the issue — slamming Social Democrat policies that see Syrian refugees deported back to a still war-torn country and calling for Copenhagen to accommodate them, while demanding better jobs and services for both the migrant and domestic urban poor. “I wouldn’t want to be too concrete about it at this stage, but it seems like there is a backlash against the Social Democrats for their rightward moves,” says Ruggaard, “which has been seen as antagonistic, as setting working and middle-class people in cities and beyond against each other.”

The Syrian refugees issue has won mainstream support across the country, with the government facing legal challenges from rights groups and nationwide demonstrations. And recently, a Danish patrol boat won plaudits for refusing orders to “push back” rescued refugees during a Frontex operation in the Aegean. Meanwhile there is a heated political battle over whether to return home the children of Danes who joined Islamic State and are now languishing in Syrian camps.

Another radicalizing force has been a nurses’ strike — a common theme across Europe and North America, as health workers have faced danger and death followed by pitiful pay packages throughout the pandemic. Danish government inflexibility recently precipitated a long-running nurses’ strike recently after the results of negotiations were voted down by rank-and-file union members.

Enhedslisten has also joined feminist campaigners in highlighting the equal pay dimension of the pay settlement and demanding pay packages that bring parity with male-dominated medical professions. The party’s canvassers report anecdotally that nurses and their families participating in the wildcat strikes are routinely Social Democrat to Enhedslisten switchers.

Rallying New Supporters

The green part of the Red-Green Alliance has been equally important in bolstering Enhedslisten’s coalition with younger, socially conscious climate activists who increasingly see the party as the greenest option in Danish politics. For many, the housing battles mentioned earlier were as much about the right to a sustainable environment as the right to affordable housing. These differing constituencies within Enhedslisten routinely disagree with each other, but strategists are struck by how unifying the campaign was within a party where dissent and internal criticism is common.

Even putting the faces of candidates on posters was a controversial step in this campaign. But the decision was helped by the presence of a broad coalition of candidates: a nurse, teachers, youth climate activists, and feminists, in what was also largely a young slate. Line Barfod, the Red-Green mayoral candidate, represented both sides of the coalition, as a long-term socialist deeply rooted in Denmark’s labor movement, the former lawyer for Copenhagen’s autonomous commune Christiania, and from 2001 to 2011 a member of the Folketing (national parliament) voted the most serious MP across party lines.

Emma Sinclair, a campaigner in the party’s youth wing, also points to the role of mobilizing young people and students in the campaign through a program of events including door-to-door morning handouts at educational institutions and pizza evenings in university halls.

“The election result is more than we dared hope for. The youth mobilization that we have built up around this campaign has played a big part in that, and in coming years as the movement builds up, we will hopefully be able to achieve the same results across Denmark. New members keep cropping up, young people want to fight for what they believe in, and now more than ever, they can see that it’s possible to make a difference,” she commented.

If Enhedslisten’s campaign was positive, its opponents’ was the reverse. Social Democrats ran a red-scare campaign, “essentially accusing Enhedslisten of wanting to turn Copenhagen into the USSR,” according to one Red-Green activist. Many were privately grateful for these attacks, believing they played poorly given the party’s existing work to build up its reputation among voters — meaning that such negativity appeared out of step with voters’ concerns, and with political reality.

“It used to be that the mainstream set the agenda and we criticized it,” said Ruggaard. “This time we set the agenda, we proposed a broad and detailed set of policies, and they criticized from the sidelines.”

It is too early to tell whether the November 16 results are indicative of a broader trend, or more the result of contingent local factors. Nationally, Enhedslisten’s 12 percent rise in vote share was carried largely by Copenhagen and Frederiksberg. And in any case, the party has a long way to go before it can implement much of its ambitious platform. But it does demonstrate that the center cannot simply take everyone to its left for granted — and that a bold politics of redistributing wealth and power can rally popular backing.