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The political systems of nations: Denmark

As the dysfunctions of our political system have become a more prevalent theme on this blog, I've gotten a large number of requests for a series exploring the political systems of other countries. How England runs its health-care system is a lot better understood than how England passed the law that created its health-care system, even though the latter is arguably more important for our purposes.

Dylan Matthews has begun writing a series that will explore different world legislatures. Each installment will focus on a different nation's system, outlining the basics but paying special attention to procedural roadblocks to passing legislation and the power of the leadership and minority. Last week, he looked at Germany. Before that, France and Britain. This week? Welcome to Denmark. Here's Dylan.

The basics

Denmark is a constitutional monarchy with a 179-member unicameral parliament called the Folketing. There used to be another house of parliament, called the Landsting, which was indirectly elected by larger districts than those for the Folketing, much like the U.S. Senate prior to the 17th amendment. The Landsting also required members to meet a certain standard of wealth, and for many years had seats set aside for appointment by the monarch. However, in 1953 a referendum of the Danish people abolished the Landsting, leaving the Folketing as the only house of parliament.

The government, consisting of the prime minister and his cabinet (Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for Justice, Minister for Finance, etc.), is appointed by the monarch based on party membership in parliament. The Folketing then holds a vote of confidence to affirm the monarch's choice. A vote of no confidence by the Folketing can force a government's resignation at any point, leaving the monarch to appoint a new government or call elections. The prime minister can also dissolve parliament and call elections at any point. Each minister leads a ministry, including the prime minister, who in addition to his duties as national leader runs the "Ministry of State," which handles issues not delegated to other ministries.

Like Germany but unlike France or England, it is exceedingly rare for a single party to gain a majority in parliament. For example, the Liberal Party (Venstre), which is a center-right, free-market liberal grouping, holds the most seats in parliament at 46 – a mere 25.7 percent of the total. Before 2001, this traditionally lead to small minority governments that had to make compromises with other parties, according to Gert Tinggaard Svendsen, a political scientist at Denmark's Aarhus University.

However, the Liberals have, along with the Conservative People's Party, been able to govern as a coalition since then. This is a minority coalition, meaning that it needs the support of other parties to pass legislation, but other right-leaning parties, notably the nationalist Danish People's Party, have been able to make up the difference. Thus, the kind of broad compromises needed to form coalitions in the past have not been as common in the last decade, according to Karl Löfgren of Roskilde University. Still, this is a relatively recent phenomenon, and multipartisanship has been required for most of Denmark's history.

The Danish parliament also has a unique position called the Ombudsman, who is appointed by the parliament but is separate from it. Much like ombudsmen for newspapers, the Ombudsman investigates complaints, and his own suspicions, of misconduct by the parliament and the government. This has helped keep corruption in Denmark to among the lowest levels of any nation.


Members of the Folketing are elected to four-year terms, which can be cut short by the prime minister calling elections. One hundred seventy-five of the 179 seats are elected in Denmark proper; two each are elected in the Faroe Islands and Greenland, where elections primarily center around the question of those territories' independence, and the electoral and party systems are different than in the rest of Denmark.

In Denmark proper, elections take place at both the district and national level. First, 135 seats are allocated among 17 electoral districts based on those districts' populations. Voters in each district vote for a single party, a member of that party, or an independent candidate, and then the seats are assigned to parties or candidates according to the d'Hondt method, a proportional representation formula that generally prefers larger parties. Due to the treatment of individual candidates as parties, a single person must gain as many votes as a whole party in a multi-member district in order to win election. In practice, this ensures that parties are generally elected rather than individual candidates.

Once these district-level elections are completed, votes from each district are tallied nationally and analyzed using the Sainte-Laguë method, an alternative to the d'Hondt method that does not give advantage to large parties. This determines how many seats each party is entitled to nationally, and the 40 remaining seats are apportioned to parties to ensure they have their fair share of seats. The result is more or less proportional representation.

Parties have ultimate power over their own party lists, and especially over their 40 national seats. That said, most parties defer to local caucuses and activists when deciding on candidates in particular districts. Like in every other country profiled in The Political Systems of Nations, there is no formal primary election process.

How to pass a bill

Any member of parliament may introduce a bill, but in practice most are introduced by members of the government, or otherwise at the instigation of the government. A bill must be presented to the parliament for debate three times before passage. The "first reading" traditionally only involves the minister for the area the bill covers, as well as the opposition spokesperson on that same subject.

Then, the bill is sent to one of 25 committees, most of which correspond to a government ministry. These committees, with the exception of the Standing Orders Committee (the rough equivalent of a Congressional Rules Committee), have 17 members, usually apportioned based on the party composition of the parliament as a whole. Committees work in secret, and spend much of their time questioning the minister to whose ministry the bill relates. The minister is legally obligated to respond to the committee's questions, and can do so honestly as the proceedings are private. Compare this to cabinet members in the U.S.'s testimony before Congress, and the advantages are clear.

The committee then prepares a report, containing recommendations by each party on the bill, potential amendments to it, and further questions on the bill. A "second reading" is then held with the whole parliament, where amendments are debated and voted upon. Then, unless a member requests that the bill be sent back to committee, a "third reading" is held in which the bill is debated one last time and voted upon by the whole parliament. If it passes, it becomes law.

Given a system where the dominant party does not hold anything close to a majority, this results in a considerable amount of compromise, both within the government and with parties outside of it. Within committees, concessions are often forced by opposition parties in exchange for votes, and the parties in government often need to comply. Thus, the parliament in Denmark has more power to influence legislation proposed by the government than in many parliamentary systems.


Perhaps the most surprising lesson to draw from the Danish political system is that sturdy social democracy is compatible with bipartisan (or, in this case, multipartisan) compromise. Denmark has been praised by liberal commentators in America for its system of "Flexicurity," which combines light regulation on trade or employment practices with a large welfare state with a heavy emphasis on job training and unemployment support. But this system came into being in the 1980s and 1990s through a series of compromises by both right-wing and left-wing governments, and has survived even the unusually large conservative majority that has governed over the last decade.

Some of the difference may be cultural, but some of it may be due to the proliferation of parties due proportional representation in Denmark. When no one party can come close to passing legislation, the normal functioning of government depends on having minority parties willing to compromise, and upon having majority parties willing to give those minority parties some policy victories. What's more, parties out of government cannot expect a majority after a future election either, and so are not as likely to vote to tank legislation in hopes of something better in the future. The difference between what a party can accomplish in or out of government is shrunk, and so parties are more willing to exercise power constructively out of government as well.

Interestingly, there is nothing formally stopping the Congress from adopting a proportional representation system similar to Denmark's. While the Constitutional requirement that House districts be allocated to states prevents national "compensation seats" like those in the Danish parliament, the Congress could hypothetically abolish Congressional districts in favor of party-list elections in each state, which would result in each party winning a certain chunk of each state's seats. This could lead to a proliferation of smaller parties and force the kind of grand compromises in the House of Representatives that Denmark's parties must make.

Of course, Denmark's compromises are made easier by the abolition of its second house of parliament. Compromises of the Danish scale are easier when they need not be ratified by another house elected by a totally different method. Thus, whether or not Danish-style proportional representation could break partisan gridlock in the House of Representatives depends on whether the Senate would generally ratify large compromises, or shoot them down regularly.


Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index: 9.3 out of 10. Second place; ahead of the U.S. at 19th.

The Economist Democracy Index, 2008: 9.52 out of 10. Fifth place; ahead of the U.S. at 18th. On "functioning of government," Denmark also bests the US, 9.64 to 7.86.

NationMaster Tax Incidence Ranking: 48.8% of GDP. Second place; ahead of the U.S. at 17th (29.6% of GDP).

Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom: 77.9 out of 100. Ninth place; just behind the U.S. at eighth (78.0). 30,242 constituents per national legislator on average. Below the U.S. average of 547,715 constituents per legislator.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 8, 2010; 2:32 PM ET
Categories:  The Politics of Nations  
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Next: Lessons from the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit vote


Got so far Britain, France, Germany and now Denmark.

Why this European bias? How a country of 5.5 million - Denmark - is relevant to our USA Government of 380 million people? Stuff in Europe is quite complicated due to EU as well.

What about Asian Democracies? Guys, what about Subcontinent - India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka; each with reasonable history of Democracy and population - I do not need to talk about that. (Pakistan - it is a checkered history). What about Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia and New Zeland?

Other countries like South Africa, Brazil and Chile; we need more information about those. Our neighbor Canada can teach us many things too.

Obsession with Europe, I do not know how that is helpful.

Posted by: umesh409 | March 8, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Was struck by this sentence: "Like Germany but unlike France or England, it is exceedingly rare for a single party to gain a majority in parliament." This sentence was not true of the Fourth French Republic (1946-58). I don't remember all the parties, but you had Communists, socialists, Christian democrats, Poujadists, etc. etc. Wikipedia fails me, but I think governments averaged less than a year or so in power because the coalitions would collapse. Finally de Gaulle returned to power and changed the governmental structure so Interesting that one man could change the governmental structure so much, and apparently change the party structure, yet French society seems mostly unaffected.

Posted by: bharshaw | March 8, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Good point umesh409. But I sure love Denmark! And the Danes! What a wonderful country to visit.

I think he is featuring countries with near-universal health coverage. As much as I also love and respect India, I don't believe it qualifies.

Posted by: luko | March 8, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Does that fact that the United States is a federation of states have any impact on the comparative analysis? Echoing umesh409 above, the comparison would seem to be between the US and the EU or RF, not the US and Massachusetts-sized England: what might work in Massachusetts or England or Denmark might not scale up in a manner suitable for the geography and population of the US. In some cases, similar scale would produce a rather unwieldy multi-thousand-member Congress.

I suppose that's one item I'd like to see with each of these comparisons -- an indication of the size (population and economy) and scope (geography and population density) of each government in comparison to that of our own.

Posted by: rmgregory | March 8, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Three factual notes (and yes, I'm Danish):

The description: "The Folketing then holds a vote of confidence to affirm the monarch's choice [of prime minister]" is not correct. Denmark does not have an investiture vote (Sweden has).

" is exceedingly rare for a single party to gain a majority in parliament." Indeed: The last time this happened was in 1910-13 (actually, the Liberals held exactly 50% of the seats in the lower house) at which time DK had a first-past-the-post-system. When proportional representation was introduced in 1915/1918, no party held a majority in the lower house of parliament. In Denmark fptp did not produce a two-party system.

The description of the Landsting fits the situation before 1915/1918. Between 1918 and 1953 suffrage was restricted to people aged 35 and over (!) and a part of the members were elected by the outgoing chamber, in practice on a proportional basis.

Posted by: jacobchr1 | March 8, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

¨Denmark is a constitutional monarchy.¨ Not. George I was a constitutional monarch (not the frothing tyrant of American revolutionary propaganda): he had a real share in running the country, constrained by parliament. Thre are few analogies today: perhaps Nepal. The current monarchs of Denmark, the UK, Thailand and so on, and the Presidents of Italy and Germany, have no day-to-day power, only influence. But ¨ceremonial¨ doesn´t fit either; these offices have a genuine backstop role in case the normal machinery breaks down, say with a hung parliament. I suggest ¨formal monarchy (or presidency).¨

Posted by: JamesWimberley | March 9, 2010 8:14 AM | Report abuse

Again, it seems weird and tendentious not to acknowledge that legislation in the US Congress gets passed as a compromise among factions just like in other countries. We've watched health care reform in the House play out as a process among Blue Dogs, UHC supporters, pro-choice vs. pro-life, etc., even though they all share the party label of Democrats.

Ezra and Dylan seem to have this notion that a PR system in the US would somehow strengthen the left and make UHC a bigger political force, but there's just no reason to think that politics would play out any differently than it does now.

Posted by: tomtildrum | March 9, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I'm enjoying this comparative government series and would like to suggest a sequel: how campaigns are financed in various countries. Do limits exist? Defined periods when fund raising is allowed? Free TV and radio time? And so on...

Posted by: meander510 | March 9, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

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