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Danish politics

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Danish politics

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The politics of Denmark function within a framework of a parliamentary, representative democracy. The Kingdom of Denmark is a constitutional monarchy, in which the Monarch, currently Queen Margrethe II, is head of state. Executive power is exercised by the Cabinet government (regeringen), presided over by the Prime Minister (statsminister) who is first among equals. Legislative power is vested in both the executive and the national parliament (Folketinget). The Judiciary is independent, officially appointed by the monarch and employed until retirement.

Denmark has a multi-party system, with two or three strong parties, and four or five other significant parties. No single party has held an absolute majority in the Folketing since the beginning of the 20th century,[1] and no single party has formed a government alone since 1982. Since only four post-war coalition governments have enjoyed a majority, government bills rarely become law without negotiations and compromise with both supporting and opposition parties. Hence the Folketing tends to be more powerful than legislatures in other EU countries. The constitution does not grant the judiciary power of judicial review of legislation, however the courts have asserted this power with the consent of the other branches of government. Since there are no constitutional or administrative courts, the Supreme Court deals with a constitutional dimension.

On many issues the political parties tend to opt in for a co-operation, and the Danish state welfare model receives a broad parliamentary support. This ensures a focus on public-sector efficiency as well as devolved responsibilities of local government on regional and municipal levels.

The degree of transparency and accountability is reflected in the public’s high level of satisfaction with the political institutions, while Denmark is also regularly considered one of the least corrupt countries in the world by international organizations.[2]


Margrethe II (born 16 April 1940) has ruled as Queen Regnant and head of state since 14 January 1972.[3] In accordance with the Danish Constitution the Danish Monarch, as head of state, is the theoretical source of all executive and legislative power.[4] However, since the introduction of parliamentary sovereignty in 1901, a de facto separation of powers has been in effect.[5]

The text of the Danish constitution dates back to 1849. Therefore it has been interpreted by jurists to suit modern conditions. In a formal sense, the Monarch retains the ability to deny giving a bill royal assent. In order for a bill to become law, a royal signature, as well as a countersignature by a government minister, is required.[4] The Monarch also chooses and dismisses the Prime Minister, although in modern times a dismissal would cause a constitutional crisis. On 28 March 1920, King Christian X was the last Monarch to exercise the power of dismissal, sparking the 1920 Easter Crisis. All royal powers called Royal Prerogative, such as patronage to appoint ministers and the ability to declare war and make peace, are exercised by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, with the formal consent of the Queen. When a new government is to be formed, the Monarch calls the party leaders to a conference of deliberation, where the latter advise the Monarch. On the basis of the advice the Monarch then appoints the party leader who commands a majority of recommendation to lead negotiations for forming a new government.[4]

According to the principles of constitutional monarchy, today the Monarch has an essentially ceremonial role, restricted in his or her exercise of power by the convention of parliamentary democracy and the separation of powers. However, the monarch does continue to exercise three formal rights: the right to be consulted; the right to advise; and the right to warn. Pursuant to these ideals, both the Prime Minister and the Cabinet attend the regular meeting of the Council of State.[6]

Political parties

Denmark has a multiparty system with currently eight parties represented in parliament. The four oldest and in history most influential parties are the Conservative People's Party, the Social Democrats, Venstre (a conservative-liberal party) and the Danish Social Liberal Party. However, demographics have been in favour of younger parties (such as the nationalist far-right Danish People's Party), which has led to a constant process of policy development and gradual renewal amongst, but not limited to, the four old parties.

None of the parties have exactly the same organization. It is however common for a party to have: An annual convention which approves manifestos and elects party chairmen; a board of leaders; an assembly of representatives as well as a number of local branches with their own organization. In most cases the party members in parliament form their own group with autonomy to develop and promote party politics in parliament and between elections.


The Government performs the executive functions of the Kingdom. The affairs of Government are decided by the Cabinet, headed by the Prime Minister. The Cabinet and the Prime Minister are responsible for their actions to the Folketing (the parliamentary system).

Members of the Cabinet are even given the formal title of "minister" and each hold a different portfolio of government duties. The day to day role of the cabinet members is to serve as head of one or more segments of the national bureaucracy, as head of the civil servants to which all employees in that department report.

Head of government

Enjoying the status of primus inter pares, the Prime Minister is head of the Danish government (as taken to mean the Cabinet). The Minister and members of the Cabinet are appointed by the Crown on basis of the party composition in the Folketing. No vote of confidence is necessary to begin the government after election. If the Folketing expresses its lack of confidence in the Prime Minister, the entire cabinet must step down, unless a new parliamentary election is called.

Lars Løkke Rasmussen was the prime minister from April 2009 until September 2011. He headed a right-wing government coalition consisting of Venstre and the Conservatives, with parliamentary support from the Danish People's Party. Following the September 2011 election the right wing lost by a small margin to the opposing left-wing coalition, led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt who on 3 October 2011 formed a new Cabinet government consisting of the Social Democrats, the Danish Social Liberal Party and the Socialist People's Party. The government has parliamentary support from the Red-Green Alliance.

Cabinet government

Further information: Cabinet of Denmark and Current cabinet

According to section 14 of the constitution, the king sets the number of ministers and the distribution of cases between them. The Monarch formally appoints and dismisses ministers, including the Prime Minister.[7] That means that the number of cabinet positions and the organisation of the state administration into agencies are set by law, but subject to change without notice. A coalition of many parties usually means a large cabinet and many ministries, while a small coalition or the rare one party government means fewer, larger ministries.

As of October 3, 2011 in the wake of the parliamentary elections, the cabinet has 23 members including the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister leads the work of the Cabinet as well as being minister for constitutional affairs, overseas territories and for the affairs of the press.

The 23 cabinet members hold different portfolios of duties, including but not limited to the day-to-day role as head of one or more segments of the government departments.

Since it is not a requirement that Cabinet Ministers be elected members of the Folketing, it is likewise not required for them to resign a seat in parliament while holding a position in the cabinet.

Government departments

The Danish executive consists of a number of government departments known as Ministries. These departments are led by a cabinet member and known as Minister for the relevant department or portfolio. In theory all Ministers are equal and may not command or be commanded by a fellow minister. Constitutional practice does however dictate, that the Prime Minister is primus inter pares, first among equals. Unlike many other countries, Denmark has no tradition of employing junior Ministers.

A department acts as the secretariat to the Minister. Its functions comprises overall planning, development and strategic guidance on the entire area of responsibility of the Minister. The Ministers' decisions are carried out by the permanent and politically neutral civil service within the department. Unlike some democracies, senior civil servants remain in post upon a change of Government. The head of the department civil servants is the Permanent Secretary. In fact, the majority of civil servants work in executive agencies that are separate operational organizations reporting to the Minister. The Minister also has his own private secretary and communications personnel. Unlike normal civil servants, the communications staff is partisan and do not remain in their posts upon changes of Government.

Portfolio Minister Took office Left office Party Ref
Minister for Commerce and Growth Annette Vilhelmsen16 October 2011Incumbent
Minister for the City, Housing and Rural Affairs Carsten Hansen3 October 2011IncumbentSocial Democrats
Minister for Employment Mette Frederiksen3 October 2011IncumbentSocial Democrats
Minister for Children and Education Christine Antorini3 October 2011IncumbentSocial Democrats
Minister for Integration and Social Affairs Karen Hækkerup3 October 2011IncumbentSocial Democrats
Minister for Development Cooperation Christian Friis Bach3 October 2011Incumbent
Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Mette Gjerskov3 October 2011IncumbentSocial Democrats
Minister for Trade and Investment Pia Olsen Dyhr3 October 2011Incumbent
Minister for Climate and Energy Martin Lidegaard3 October 2011Incumbent
Minister for Transport Henrik Dam Kristensen3 October 2011IncumbentSocial Democrats
Minister for Health and Prevention Astrid Krag3 October 2011Incumbent
Minister for European Affairs Nicolai Wammen3 October 2011IncumbentSocial Democrats
Minister for the Environment Ida Auken3 October 2011Incumbent
Minister for Equality, Church and Nordic Cooperation Manu Sareen3 October 2011Incumbent

Tradition of minority governments

As known in other parliamentary systems of government, the executive (i.e. the Cabinet) is accountable to the parliament (i.e. the Folketing). Under the Danish constitution, no government may remain in office with a majority against it. This is called negative parliamentarianism, as opposed to the principle of positive parliamentarianism—as in Germany and some other parliamentary systems—a government needs to achieve a majority through a vote of investiture in parliament. It is due to the principle of negative parliamentarianism and its proportional representation system that Denmark has a long tradition of minority governments. Nevertheless, minority governments in Denmark sometimes have strong parliamentary majorities with the help of one or more supporting parties.[1] The previous government of Venstre and Conservatives thus had stable parliamentary support from the Danish People's Party even though this party was not a member of the government.

Danish politics are based upon consensus.[1] The current coalition government between the Social Democrats, the Danish Social Liberal Party and the Socialist People's Party is a minority government, based on the support of the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) and a handful of independent members of parliament. Because of this tradition it has historically been common practice to cooperate among the two sides in the parliament.


Main article: Folketing

The Folketing performs the legislative functions of the Kingdom. As a parliament, it is at the centre of the political system in Denmark, and is the supreme and ultimate legislative body, operating within the confines of the constitution. The Prime Minister is drawn from parliament through the application of the Danish parliamentary principle (a majority must not exist in opposition to the government), and this process is also generally the case for the government also. The government is answerable to parliament through the principle of parliamentary control (question hour, general debates and the passing of resolutions or motions). Ministers can be questioned by members of Parliament regarding specific government policy matters.

General debates on broader issues of government policy may also be held in parliament and may also be followed by a motion of "no-confidence". The opposition rarely requests motions of no-confidence, as the government is usually certain of its majority; however, government policy is often discussed in the plenary assembly of Parliament. Since 1953, the year that marked the reform of the Danish constitution, parliament has been unicameral.


With the implementation of the first democratic constitution in 1849, Denmark's legislature was constituted as a bicameral parliament, or Rigsdag, composed of Folketinget (a lower house of commoners) and Landstinget (an upper house containing lords, landowners and industrialists).[8] With the constitutional reform of 1953 the Landstinget was abolished, leaving only Folketinget.


The Folketing is composed of 179 seats, whereof two are reserved for the Faroe Islands and two for Greenland. The remaining 175 seats are taken up by MPs from elected in Denmark. All 179 seats are contested in elections held at least every four years and in the present parliament, all seats are taken up by members belonging to a political party.

All parties receiving more than 2% of the votes are represented in parliament. Comparatively, this is quite low; in Sweden the minimum level of support necessary for getting into parliament is 4%. Often, this has led to the representation of many parties in parliament, and correspondingly complex/unstable government majorities. However, during the last decade the political system has been one of stable majorities and rather long government tenures.

Proportional representation and elections

Denmark does not use a first-past-the-post voting system based on constituencies. Instead a system of constituency based proportional representation as well as a system of allotment is indirectly prescribed in the constitution, ensuring a balanced distribution of the 179 seats. 135 members are elected by proportional majority in constituencies while the remaining 40 seats are allotted in proportion to the total number of votes a party or list receives. The Faroe Islands and Greenland elect two members each.

All parties and lists receiving more than 2% of the total vote are guaranteed parliamentary representation. As a consequence of the system, the number of votes required to be elected to parliament varies across the country; it generally requires fewer votes to be elected in the capital of Copenhagen than it does being elected in less populous areas.

The voting system ensures a multi-party parliament with currently eight parties represented in parliament. The Prime Minister's Social Democrats received 24.8% of the total vote in the 2011 general elections, making it the second-largest party with 44 seats. The smallest party in parliament is the Conservative People's Party which received 4.9% of the total vote, equivalent to eight seats.

The participation of the electorate in general elections normally lies above 85%. Template:Danish parliamentary election, 2011

Judicial system

Denmark has an independent and highly professional judiciary.[9] Unlike the vast majority of civil servants, Danish judges are appointed directly by the Monarch.[10] However, since the constitution ensures the independence of the judiciary from Government and Parliament in providing that judges shall only take into account the laws of the country (i.e. acts, statutes and practices),[11] the procedure on appointments is only a formality. Until 1999 appointment of judges was a de facto responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, who, as well, was charged with the overall administration of the justice system. On accusations of nepotism and in-group bias, the Ministry in 1999 setup two quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations responsible for appointments and administration.[12]


The Danish Parliamentary Ombudsman, currently Jørgen Steen Sørensen,[13] is a lawyer who is elected by parliament to act as a watchdog over the government by inspecting institutions under government control, focusing primarily on the protection of citizens' rights.[14] The Ombudsman frequently inspects places where citizens are deprived of their personal freedom, including (but not limited to) prisons and psychiatric hospitals.[13] While the Ombudsman has no power to personally act against the government, he or she can ask the courts to take up cases where the government might be violating Danish law. The Ombudsman can criticize the government after an inspection and bring matters to public attention, and the government can choose to act upon or ignore his criticism, with whatever costs it might have towards the voters and the parliament

Domestic and foreign relations

Danish Realm

Main article: Danish Realm

Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands were formerly colonies of Denmark. The Danish–Icelandic Act of Union (1918) changed the status of Iceland into that of a kingdom in personal union with Denmark. Iceland remained subordinate to Denmark until independence in 1944 amidst World War II. In the nineteenth century Greenland and the Faroe Islands were given the status of counties, and their own legislatures were disbanded, becoming integral parts of a unitary state.[15] They later gained home rule; the Faroe Islands in 1948 and Greenland in 1979.[15]

Today Greenland and the Faroe Islands are effectively self-governing in regards to domestic affairs,[15] with their own legislatures and executives. However, the devolved legislatures are subordinate to the Folketing where the two territories are represented by two seats each. This state of affairs is referred to as the rigsfælleskab. In 2009 Greenland received greater autonomy in the form of "self-rule".

Foreign policy

Danish foreign policy is based on its identity as a sovereign nation in Europe. As such its primary foreign policy focus is on its relations with other nations as a sovereign independent nation. It is a member of NATO and the European Union; membership in the latter organization has brought forward questions regarding the sovereignty of Denmark and its parliament.

In recent years Greenland and the Faroe Islands have been guaranteed a say in foreign policy issues such as fishing, whaling, and geopolitical concerns.

See also


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