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Denmark celebrates 170th Constitution Day

BY: Kate Baaba Hudson
Ambassador of Denmark, Mrs Tove Degnbol
Ambassador of Denmark, Mrs Tove Degnbol

On Wednesday, June 5, 2019, Denmark will celebrate its 170th Constitution Day.

The Danish Constitution dates back to 1849 and has been amended only a few times, in 1915 to allow women to vote, in 1953 to ensure that a princess could become the Queen if her parents had no sons, and in 2009 to ensure that a princess will become Queen if she is the first born, regardless of whether she has a younger brother.

Danish electoral system and the June 2019 election

This Constitution Day is special since it is also the country’s election day.

On June 5, people in Denmark will go in large numbers to polling stations in schools and other public buildings to cast their votes and decide the composition of the Parliament (the “Folketing”) for the coming four years.

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The Danish election system is based on proportional representation, allowing parliament to reflect the various political orientations in the society through a multitude of different parties.

The elections period last three weeks, campaigns focus on issues, television adverts are basically non-existent and over 85 per cent of the electorate turns out to vote.

In the 2016 report by the Electoral Integrity Project, an independent research group affiliated with the Harvard University and the University of Sydney, Denmark’s election process was rated the best in the world. In fact, all the Nordic countries fared well in the study.

Climate change as an election issue

One of the main themes in the current election is the climate change policy. Virtually all political parties now present themselves as green, environmentally friendly, ready to face the realities of climate change, and to do what is necessary to mitigate it. Especially for the young generation, this is very high on the agenda.

The Ambassador of Denmark, Mrs Tove Degnbol, explained that: “Many young people, including my own three children, have become vegetarians – not because they do not like meat but to put a lighter carbon dioxide footprint on the earth. My two grown-up sons really like being in Ghana, but they hesitate to visit us, because they only want to go where they can travel by train. Many young people in Denmark and other countries, which are contributing excessively to the climate change problem, are thinking and acting along the same lines”.

Regardless of the outcome of the Danish election, the next government is likely to be a minority government as it has been the tradition during most of the past century.

Due to the proportional election system, none of the parties are particularly large.

Since the last election in June 2015, nine parties have been represented in Parliament plus two representatives for Greenland and two for Faroe Islands. In this election, all these parties plus another four are running for election. Governments are usually coalition of parties which rely on the support of one or two additional parties. If only one party is in government, it has to navigate from case to case to form alliances of support.

The Danish political system

According to the Ambassador, the keywords in the Danish political system are compromises and alliances: “Compromises imply that stakeholders are ready to sacrifice some of their ambitions to obtain something more important in the national interest. One party will not be able to govern alone, and very rarely will one party manage to have all of its agenda accepted”.

This is further reinforced by the fact that the composition of municipal and regional councils is independent of the composition of the Parliament. Currently, 53 Mayors in a total of 98 municipalities represent a party which is not part of the current government coalition, and four out of the five regional councils are also led by an opposition party.

Mayors in Denmark come from nine different parties, which are not entirely the same as the nine parties represented in Parliament. In a few cases, people have established their own local party which has won only in one municipality.

The Ambassador pointed out that, “the tone in the political debate – especially during an election campaign – can be harsh, but politicians and members of political parties are careful not to go too far, as they will most likely have to work closely on particular matters soon after the election”.

She finds that the system built on minority governments and a more complex political fabric where many parties which share power contributes to ease the tensions between the various population groups and ensure that as many views as possible are heard and reflected in the political decision making.

Ghana’s December 2019 referendum

In Ghana, the referendum in December 2019 is to amend Article 55(3) of the 1992 Constitution, which will legalise the participation of political parties in decentralised local governance. 

According to Ambassador Degnbol, this had the potential to introduce some of the same sharing of power and inclusive governance that limit the unfortunate implications of “the winner takes all” political system as the Danish experience has shown over the years.

If accepted, she said, the proposed amendment of the Constitution might also contribute to improving the accountability of government officials to the population and building more trust between government and citizens. “Although no reform is simple and straightforward especially when there are a lot of factors at play, the constitutional amendments may eventually also pave the way for improved delivery of public services and an increased willingness to pay tax to sustain them”, she says.

“We all share the hope that the forthcoming referendum, and not least, the elections in December 2020, will be as peaceful as previous elections in Ghana have been”, the Ambassador continues.

“The tradition for peaceful settling of conflicts is one of Ghana’s most outstanding features, and there is an awful lot to lose, if this is not continued. The recent level of vigilante group activity is deeply disturbing.

We hope and pray that the government, the two large political parties, important institutions such as the National Peace Council and religious and traditional leaders will do what is necessary to control the undemocratic forces which threaten the foundation of the Ghanaian democracy to enable citizens to continue to live in peace and unity” she said.

On behalf of her team, the Ambassador extended warm wishes for a good Constitution Day to all Danes in Ghana and a continued strong partnership between Ghana and Denmark.