Danish history at a glance

Denmark’s history as an independent state dates back some thousand years, and between 1300 and 1900 the country enjoyed a strong position in European politics. During the Napoleon wars Denmark supported France, for which it was punished at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 by the loss of Norway to Sweden. Greenland, Iceland and the Faeroe Islands remained in Danish possession. Fifty years later, the German-dominated duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were lost, thus making Denmark in essence a national state.

The Danish liberal and national movements gained momentum in the 1830s, and after the European revolutions of 1848 Denmark became a constitutional monarchy in 1849. The growing bourgeoisie demanded a share in government, and in an attempt to avert the bloody revolutions that were occurring elsewhere in Europe, the king gave in to the demands of the citizens. A new constitution was drawn up dividing powers and granting franchise to all adult males. The king was made head of the executive branch, which was complemented by a legislative branch consisting of two parliamentary chambers; the Folketing, consisting of members elected by the general population, and the Landsting, whose members were elected by landowners. Two political parties crystallized: the Right (Højre, comprising the conservatives) and the United Left (Det Forenede Venstre , consisting of various opposition groups). With industrialization and the rising labour movement, the Social Democrats entered the legislature in 1884. Notwithstanding left-wing majority in the assembly, the Right remained in government until 1901 when a parliamentary system was introduced.

The leftist governments that took office in the early 20th century introduced a number of reforms relating to education, taxation, women and labour rights and laid down the basis for the modern welfare state. During World War I, Denmark was able to remain neutral but was forced to adhere to German wishes. After the German defeat, the issue of Schleswig was finally brought to an end in a plebiscite in which the northern parts of Schleswig voted in favour of a union with Denmark. In spite of Danish neutrality and a non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany, Denmark was occupied by German troops in April 1940. In 1945 Denmark became a charter member of the United Nations and, breaking a long tradition of neutrality, joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949. In 1960, Denmark became part of the European Free Trade Association, which it left in 1972 in order to join the European Community. Denmark granted independence to Iceland in 1944 and home rule to the Faeroe Islands in 1948 and to Greenland in 1979.

The election of 1973 transformed the political scene in Denmark. The vote for the four established parties fell by more than 30 percentage points, and as a consequence the number of parties represented in parliament doubled from 5 to 10. The earthquake election brought about an era of political turbulence with frequent elections and weak, complex and unstable government coalitions. The political crisis was accompanied by economic stagnation and increasing unemployment. In 1982, the first Conservative-led government since 1894, a centre-right coalition headed by Poul Schlüter, came to power. Schlüter remained prime minister under various coalition arrangements until 1993.

Politics in the new era

Denmark is a parliamentary representative democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. The monarch serves as the head of state and has largely ceremonial and symbolic functions. Executive powers are vested in the government which is led by the prime minister acting as the head of government. Notably, the government has the right to dissolve the legislature and call for early elections, a right that has been exercised frequently in the post-war period.

Contrary to its counterparts in Norway and Sweden, the Danish Social Democratic Party (SD) has not been able to remain the largest party in Danish politics throughout the post-war decades. In 1993, after more than ten years of various Conservative-led coalitions, Schlüter retired after his minister of justice had misinformed the Danish parliament in the so-called “Tamil case” which brought about the first impeachment in Denmark in 80 years. His resignation resulted in the formation of a majority government coalition comprising the Social Democrats, the Social Liberals, the Centre Democrats (CD) and the Christian People's Party (KRF).

All coalition parties but the Social Liberal Party lost ground in the 1994 parliamentary election. While the Christian People's Party lost all its representatives in the assembly, the three remaining coalition partners remained in office. Two years after the election, the Centre Democrats withdrew from government. The 1998 election displayed a close race between the left and the centre-right blocks. Yet again, the Social Democrats were able to assume office, this time with only one coalition partner, the Social Liberals. The Danish People's Party (DF), particularly known for their anti-immigration platform, made a successful debut in the election becoming the fourth largest party in the assembly. The Christian People's Party re-entered parliament whereas the Conservatives suffered a serious setback as its parliamentary group was reduced by 40 percent.

2001 saw the most dramatic change on the political scene since the earthquake election of 1973. The Liberals replaced the Social Democrats as the largest party in parliament, and with parliamentary support of the Danish People's Party, the Liberals and the Conservatives formed a coalition government under the leadership of the Liberal Party leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The Danish People's Party rose to the third largest party, in part owing to the focus of the election campaign which centred on Denmark's policies on immigration. In 2005, the Liberal Party regained the largest number of seats in the assembly and the governing coalition remained intact, once again with the parliamentary support of the Danish People's Party. The Social Democrats lost territory, which resulted in the resignation of its party leader, while the Social Liberal Party made the biggest gains in the election.

In the November 2007 early election, Prime Minister Aders Fogh Rasmussen maintained his parliamentary base and commenced his third term in office. The newly formed New Alliance, consisting of former members of the Danish Social Liberal Party and the Conservative People's Party, gained five of the 179 parliamentary seats.


Denmark. 2009. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 1, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:

Denmark, Recent History, in Europa World online. 2009. London, Routledge. University of Bergen. Retrieved 01 February 2009 from