Gen. Charles deGaulle is supposed to have said despairingly of the French, "How can one govern a country with 352 different cheeses?" Most foreign observers here count 11 different parties in the Danish parliament and ask roughly the same rhetorical question. Stable government, they conclude with regret, is impossible in a setup like this.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Anker Joergensen whose Social Democrats hold only 65 of the 179 seats in parliament has in fact as much authority as the chief of any democratic government. If he calls out the police of the trooper, they don't count his seats in Parliament but obey orders. Joergensen's tax collectors collects very high taxes; his bureaucrats spend money on welfare, housing highways and medical care and nobody questions the checks. Joergensen's foreign minister negotiates treaties. If the prime minister makes the appropriate compromises, he can even get Parliament to adopt some new tax and spending bills.
To be sure, Joergensen cannot get Parliament to pass one of his pet projects - taxing employers to build a fund for a union takeover of large companies. There is no fundamental agreement among voters or parties on this. It is a neat illustration of Walter Lippmann's rule of thumb that no farreaching measure should be adopted without consent from two-thirds of an electorate.
But Joergensen's position is no different from that of British Prime Minister James Callaghan, whose party got 40.1 per cent of the vote in last election of for that matter, of President Carter, who got 49.98 per cent of the vote last fall. Callaghan does not try to put through his Parliament a favorite Labor bill to tax wealth. Carter has had to give way on may issues, from a tax rebate to his first choice for director of the CIA.
The point is that Denmark's multiparty structure hides the central fact: This country is essentially governed by one party.Its factions are called Liberal Party, Radical Liberal, Conservative, Christian People's Party, Social Democrat, Center Democrat and the like. Its governments are variously called Coalition, Liberal or Social Democrat.
The real political argument is over men and over details - should the state pay for ceramic courses for housewives; should the tax burden be shifted at the margin from workers to owners or the reverse; how much medical care should be underwritten by the state; would Joergensen or Poul Hartling of the Liberals produce the better pay policy. But the fundamental strands of policy are agreed upon.
For Denmark, they are:
A classically liberal economy, based on private property and more or less free markets to determine output and prices.
Large-scale economic intervention by the state using tax, spending and monetary policies in an effort to dampen the business cycle, restrain inflation and reduce unemployment.
Generous welfare payments for the needy, disabled and aged, with wide state support for all medical expenses and all schooling.
Firm adherence to the Western alliance and full participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations.
This consensus excludes the three leftist parties - Communists, People's Socialists and Left Socialits. They would quarrel with nearly every one of the points above. In the last election, the three received together one vote in 10, a measure of their isolation.
On the right, many Danes would be upset by including under the consensus tent the Progressive Party of Mogens Glistrup. Glistrup, who got one vote in seven, is thought of as an antisocial charlatan whose opposition to income taxes is a threat to Denmark's social solidarity. In fact, Glistrup has softened so many of his original positions - he no longer boasts that he pays no taxes, now concedes the need for defense spending and favors pensions and medical insurance - that he has all but crawled onto the political bandwagon.
Denmark's one-party system, moreover is much like those of its neighbors in democratic Sweden and Norway. Swedish voters finally ousted the Social Democrats after two generations. The Swedes rightly guessed that it would not make much difference.
Indeed, the only difference so far is that Prime Minister Thorbjorn Falldin's coalition has spent money faster on nuclear energy and othe public works than Olof Palme, his predecessor. But nothing of consequence has changed.
In Norway next fall, Liberals and Conservations hope to topple the Labor government. This will affect the politicians involved, but no serious voter expects any radical departure.
From a Scandinavian standpoint, the two-party systems of Britain and the United States are close counsins. Labor and Democrats, Tories and Republicans are coalitions by themselves. They all contain left, center and right wings and there is considerable overlap between them. In a sense each is a multiparty with a single label. When they exchange office, no sophisticated voter looks for great change.
France - as DeGaulle aphoristically observed - Italy and Germany are different. Deep ideological splits fissure these societies and there is no broad consensus on key issues.
But most stable democracies, like those in Britain, Scandinavia and the United States, enjoy a wide measure of agreement that severely limits the way parties behave in power. Denmark's 11 provide a striking example. They really reduce to two, a left fraction excluded from power by the voters and a consensus grouping with a monopoly of government.