After a long run of outs, there was finally some good news overnight for the European Left, as Denmark’s Centre-Right government conceded defeat following yesterday’s election. Social Democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt will be the country’s new prime minister.

Over the past three years of financial turmoil, the trend in Europe has been, contrary to initial expectations, for voters to move to the Right.

There’s been no sign of either a general swing against incumbents or a swing against the more pro-market parties; if anything, it’s been the opposite.

But with no end to the crisis in sight, that may now be changing. If Denmark does herald a downturn in the fortunes of incumbents it will be certainly work to the Left’s advantage, since the Right is now in power across most of the continent. Of the nine largest EU economies, only Spain still has a Centre-Left government (another, Belgium, has no government at all), and its defeat is widely expected in next year’s election.

Opinion polls already suggest that several incumbent Centre-Right governments are in trouble — notably those in the “big four” of Germany, France, Britain and Italy — and when they come up for re-election over the next few years (France votes next year, Germany and Italy in 2013, although early elections in Italy are very possible) it will provide the Left with a big opportunity.

Before reading too much into the Danish result, however, it’s worth noting that this is something less than a left-wing triumph. The Social Democrat vote actually dropped by 0.6%, and their coalition won only a bare majority, 50.2% to 49.7%. With the support of the two Greenland MPs they will have a five-seat majority in parliament, 92 to 87.

(Adam Carr’s archive seems to be taking a break, but he has the 2007 figures here; this year’s results are available in Danish here; or translated by Wikipedia.)

It’s actually more complicated than that, because Denmark has three Liberal parties, one of which votes with the Centre-Left and two (including the party of outgoing Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen) with the Centre-Right. Grouping them together, they scored a net gain of about 7% and 13 seats. The other parties of the right lost a similar amount between them, while the three parties of (narrowly speaking) the Left showed no net gain.

The drop in the Right’s vote ended the long run of growth for the far-Right Danish People’s Party, which had supported the Rasmussen government without actually being a member. Under its influence the government had enacted some of the toughest immigration policies in Europe, including a threat to reintroduce border controls against its EU neighbours. Thorning-Schmidt has promised that some of those measures will be wound back.

Combined with the poor performance of the Progress Party in Norway’s local elections, it suggests that the threat of right-wing terrorism may have scared some voters away from the anti-immigrant parties. At the same time, the fact that the new government depends on Liberal votes should prevent it from straying too far to the Left.

Denmark has been one of Europe’s strongest-performing economies in the past decade, combining free-market reforms with a Scandinavian-style welfare state. Although recovery has been disappointing, yesterday’s result suggests that popular discontent is far from overwhelming.

It also reaffirms the lesson that Europe’s multiparty systems allow the electorate to express its views in a more nuanced and informative way than the unsatisfactory either-or choice that Australia’s two-party system gives us.

Peter Fray

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