Sunday 4 December 2016

Is it time for Enda to follow Borgen model?

With the Dáil in stalemate over who will become ­Taoiseach, parties could look to Denmark, where minority ­governments are the norm.

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

Political drama: Lars Knutzon (Bent Sejrø), Sidse Babett Knudsen (Birgitte Nyborg)and Pilou Asbæk (Kasper Juul) in the hit Danish series Borgen.
Political drama: Lars Knutzon (Bent Sejrø), Sidse Babett Knudsen (Birgitte Nyborg)and Pilou Asbæk (Kasper Juul) in the hit Danish series Borgen.

Enda Kenny may be as far removed as you can get as a political leader from the glamorous fictional politician, Birgitte Nyborg, the lead character in the hit Danish TV series Borgen. But over the coming days, the caretaker Taoiseach would be well advised to watch the series and study the Danish political system - if he has not done so already.

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The stalemate after our election, with no party commanding anything like majority support, may have prompted unease and even panic in political circles, but anyone who has watched Borgen will be familiar with the idea of a fully functioning minority government.

Scandinavians - including politicians in Denmark, Sweden and Norway - are well used to politicians of many parties working together.

And cobbling together patchwork governments is as much a part of Danish life as butter cookies, Lego bricks and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

If the World Happiness Report is anything to go by, we should follow the Danish example - and should not get too flustered in the process. The report commissioned by the United Nations found that Denmark finished top in a happiness survey that takes into account gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, generosity and absence of corruption, while Ireland was 19th.

In the dramatic world of Borgen, Birgitte Nyborg led the small Moderate Democrat party and she emerged as a compromise prime minister, supported by parties which had far more members of parliament than she had.

That is how things work out in real life in Denmark as well.

Parties much smaller than Fine Gael have reigned over stable, lasting administrations. In doing so they have to tear off the shackles of die-hard party loyalty, and find common agreement on policies.

As Borgen fans know, Danish politics has many different parties involved in the formation of a government. A prime minister is not necessarily the leader who can command a majority in the Folketing parliament but the leader who can prevent a majority uniting against them.

The phenomenon is known as "negative parliamentarianism". Governments only fall when they are met with a majority against them on a crucial issue.

If Ireland's parliamentary landscape now seems cluttered, Denmark's is even more crowded with up to 10 parties. Minority coalitions are the rule and since 1945 there have only been four governments with an overall majority.

Broadly, these parties ally themselves with one of two blocs - the left of centre red block, and the right of centre blue bloc. The prime minister is appointed by the monarch, once they show that they have attracted enough support in parliament, but that support often stops short of going into coalition with the ruling party.

Enda Kenny may believe the process of government formation is impossible with just 25.5pc supporting Fine Gael.

But the political manoeuvring and return to power of the current Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen should offer him some hope.

Rasmussen's conservative liberal party Venstre saw its vote collapse in last year's general election from 27pc to 19.5pc.

His party finished third to the Social Democrats, led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the selfie-loving former prime minister, upon whom Borgen is often thought to be based.

With just 34 out of the 179 seats in the Folketing, Rasmussen managed to gather enough support from other parties on key issues to secure power. His success not only offers hope for Enda Kenny, but also Micheál Martin, with Fianna Fáil on 24pc.

In many other countries, gaining power is not just about winning elections, but also doing deals with other parties and hawking your wares in the corridors of power.

Generally this multiplicity of parties tends to pull politics to the centre.

But in the present minority set-up, Rasmussen, an experienced politician who served as prime minister before, partly relies on the anti-immigration Danish People's Party, one of many populist parties to have been boosted recently across Europe.

Although it won more votes than Rasmussen's Venstre, the DPP refuses to take part in the government.

But it lends the ruling party support on some issues and has been able to demand tighter restrictions on asylum seekers entering the country.

So what tips would the Danes give to Enda?

Peter Nedergaard, Professor of Politics at Copenhagen University, says: "As leader of a minority government you need to be good at making compromises. You command the backing of your supporters first and then you look for the support of other parties.

"You have to build up a new consensus and when you make an agreement you have to know how long it will last.

"You need a new political culture to have an efficient system of minority governments."

The current prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, attracts less attention in the international media than his predecessor, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, largely as a result of the parallels in her life with Borgen, and her marriage to Stephen Kinnock, son of the former British Labour Party leader Neil.

According to newspaper reports, Thorning-Schmidt has become weary over the years of the comparisons made between herself and the character of Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen.

She watched the TV series, but said in one interview: "[It] doesn't have so much to do with my reality. It's like policemen watching a detective series. They always sit there saying, 'We don't do that'."

But like Birgitte Nyborg, Thorning-Schmidt had to navigate Denmark's system of minority governments when she was in power. And like the present prime minister, she came to power in less than promising circumstances.

She took over as leader of the Social Democrats only two months after becoming an MP.

Proving the quirks of the Danish system, she managed to take over as prime minister even though the Social Democrats suffered a heavy defeat in the 2011 election. She depended on support from smaller left-wing parties to take the top job.

When she served as prime minister, she had to cope with the nickname "Gucci Helle", because of her alleged attachment to luxury labels. As the Guardian reported, when asked by a party member how she expected to connect to the people in her expensive outfits, she retorted: "We can't all look like shit!"

But her defenders said the nickname was sexist, as men would never attract such comments about their appearance.

Thorning- Schmidt quit politics earlier this year to become chief executive of Save the Children International.

Professor Peter Nedergaard says Helle Thorning-Schmidt suffered from a lack of experience when she first went into government.

"When she became prime minister, she had not been a minister before. She had not been in the parliament for a long time.

"The present prime minister has all the experience needed to be a good negotiator and compromise maker. That is what is needed."

Professor Nedergaard says if Ireland wants to have successful minority governments, politicians will have to have a change of political culture.

According to the professor, there has to be a common understanding of a new set of rules on how to negotiate, how to make deals, and how to break deals. Parties have to know when to bring down a government.

It sounds like the kind of job that would be ideal for former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who helped to broker the Good Friday Agreement and many other government deals. Enda Kenny's skills as a dealmaker will be tested.

Dr Eoin O'Malley, lecturer in politics at Dublin City University, says: "Minority governments are actually very common in Europe. At any one time between a quarter and one-third of administrations are minority governments."

Generally these governments, requiring support from disparate political groups, pull politics towards the centre ground.

But with its support from the anti-immigration Danish People's Party, Rasmussen's Danish government has been heavily criticised for its attempts to bring in draconian measures against migrants.

The measures delayed asylum seekers from being reunited with their families for three years when they entered Denmark, and allowed police to seize valuables from migrants.

In neighbouring Sweden, the party system has also become fragmented with eight main parties competing for votes.

Dr Lenita Freidenvall, a political scientist at Stockholm University, says: "We often have minority governments - the present government is a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens with only minority support."

"They have the support of the Left party, but in order to get a majority they have to negotiate with other parties on an issue-by-issue basis."

That could be the scenario here as Fine Gael goes cap in hand to Fianna Fáil as they try to win votes in the Dáil.

This type of administration may work in many countries, but it is not always a bed of roses.

"It is very difficult for any party to govern at the moment in Sweden," says Dr Freidenvall. "That is because of the emergence of the Sweden Democrats Party (which opposes immigration). They try to obstruct a lot of measures.

"There are great disadvantages to a minority government. This is because you have to negotiate each and every issue, and this takes up a lot of time and energy that could be spent on other things."

The fine art of compromise and negotiation will be an essential skill in the coming weeks and months. If the Danish experience is anything to go by, whoever masters it can play a decisive role in the choice of Taoiseach - and it may not necessarily be Enda Kenny.

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