Left-wing politicians in western Europe have not had the best crisis. But few have had such a torrid time as Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s prime minister.
A year after she broke a losing streak by center-left leaders in Europe and became the new standard-bearer for social democracy on the continent, Thorning-Schmidt’s party has plunged to its lowest opinion poll ratings in at least a century.
A recent survey for the Boersen newspaper put the Social Democrats’ approval at less than 17 percent, down sharply from the 25 percent Thorning-Schmidt received in last year’s general elections.
“For the Social Democrat party it is a huge crisis. I don’t think they have registered lower figures in the history of polling,” said Rune Stubager, associate professor of politics at Aarhus University.
Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s first female prime minister, reshuffled her cabinet on Tuesday in an attempt to give fresh impetus to her government. That followed five weeks of inaction due to leadership elections in the Socialist People’s party, a junior coalition partner that has seen its ratings almost halved since the elections.
Government insiders admit that the polls make for tough reading, but they stress the prime minister’s stamina and fighting qualities and point to another recent poll, this time from Gallup, that gave the Social Democrats 21 percent — their best figures in five months. The center-right opposition bloc was still far in the lead at 53 percent.
“It is not good enough,” Thorning-Schmidt said on Danish TV earlier this month. “I obviously take the polls seriously. But I am completely convinced that it is the Social Democrats’ job to take Denmark through the crisis.”
The prime minister never had the easiest task taking charge of a fractious coalition and a faltering economy that has come close to recession repeatedly over the past two years.
But the daughter-in-law of former British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock has alienated her own voters and those further to the left by pushing through a tax package together with the center-right opposition and by scrapping a series of pre-election policies.
That has allowed the opposition, in power for a decade until last year and still led by former prime minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, to paint the government as a breaker of promises after left-wing parties had to drop a number of costly proposals, such as a fare cut on public transport. Others, such as a congestion charge for Copenhagen, were unceremoniously ditched despite having been repeatedly touted.
But the biggest damage to the Social Democrats came from teaming up with the center-right to pass tax amendments that benefited some of the biggest earners at the expense of old-age pensions and unemployment benefits, to the amazement of some left-wing parties. Passing next year’s budget could also require right-wing help, making it another potential flash point.
Of all the Nordic countries except Iceland, Denmark was hit hardest by the financial crisis, as highly indebted households caused big credit losses for banks and several smaller lenders failed. But the Danish krone has proved popular in foreign-exchange markets because the country’s peg to the euro means that it is a potentially lucrative trade if the single currency breaks up.
The Danish central bank has responded by pushing interest rates to historic lows and even taking the deposit rates that it pays banks into negative territory. That means Danish short-term mortgage rates, highly popular with the public, are at record lows and getting ever nearer to zero.
That has done little to help Thorning-Schmidt, however, as second-quarter GDP figures showed a decline.
Stubager says much of the government’s strategy is based on a hope that the Danish economy will rebound before the next elections. “The question is whether it will be soon enough and strong enough for them to be able to claim they did it through their policies,” he said.
The current government started out inauspiciously, with policy differences among the minority coalition partners from the beginning.
Then Thorning-Schmidt and other ministers were distracted by Denmark’s E.U. presidency in the first half of this year. “This was the worst possible timing — it is really very difficult to focus both internally and on Europe,” one government insider said.
One irony of the recent polls is that they give the Social Democrats “a heightened incentive to stay in office as long as possible,” Stubager said, as the center-right would storm to victory if elections were held now.
Thorning-Schmidt has urged the government not to obsess about the terrible polls and instead plow ahead with its policies.
“What we should do is not become nervous over the polls,” she said. “We need to act every single day.”