Copenhagen, Denmark — Despite finishing first in the Danish elections, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen decided on Wednesday to step down with her social-democratic government in a bid to build a broader coalition across political divides.
Frederiksen’s announcement came after a dramatic vote tally in which the centre-left bloc that has backed her since 2019 retained its majority in parliament by just one seat.
In theory, the 44-year-old Social Democratic leader could have remained in power at the head of a minority government. But she said she would stick to promises made ahead of Tuesday’s election to try to form a broader governing coalition that includes centre-right parties.
“I’m happy, proud and grateful,” Frederiksen said. “It has been a very difficult few years to be Prime Minister: first the pandemic, now inflation. Many indicated that a government in place would not be re-elected.
Frederiksen tendered his resignation on Wednesday to Queen Margrethe, Denmark’s figurehead. Frederiksen will remain prime minister on an interim basis until a new government is formed.
The parties that together represent a majority in parliament have argued that she is leading talks on the creation of the next government, which the Queen should ask the Prime Minister to do.
Frederiksen called a snap election last month amid fallout from his government’s controversial decision to cull millions of mink as a pandemic response measure. The slaughter and chilling images of mink mass graves have haunted Frederiksen since 2020 and eventually led to cracks in the centre-left bloc.
On Tuesday, the Social Democrats won 28% of the vote, or 50 seats in the Danish Parliament, which has 179 members. Exit polls and early results had suggested that center-left parties would not together muster the 90 seats needed for a majority. They were one seat short until the very end of the vote count, when the deciding seat flipped.
Prior to that, former prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen seemed poised to become a kingmaker. His newly formed Moderate Party won 9% of the vote for 16 seats, according to a preliminary tally of all ballots. Voter turnout was 84.1%, according to official figures.
Løkke Rasmussen, a two-time head of government who lost the 2019 election to Frederiksen and left the centre-right Liberal Party following an internal power struggle, said he would support Frederiksen’s attempt to form a government, but not necessarily with her as prime minister.
“I know for sure that Denmark needs a new government,” he told cheering supporters in Copenhagen. “Who will sit at the end of the table? We do not know.”
Election results in Greenland, a self-governing Danish territory that has two seats in the Legislative Assembly, confirmed early Wednesday that the centre-left bloc would have a one-seat majority in parliament.
Some of Frederiksen’s former partners expressed disappointment that she chose to seek a broader coalition rather than continue to govern with centre-left support. Troels Bøggild, associate professor of political science at Aarhus University in western Denmark, said Frederiksen now had two options for forming a new government.
“Either go with the moderates (in the center) and the liberals, and if that fails, she can crawl to the red bloc and form a government there,” he said. “By stepping down, she shows that her campaign promises to build a broad center government are serious.”
Frederiksen said a broad coalition would be better placed to deal with major challenges such as inflation, climate change and shortcomings in the public healthcare system.
Ahead of the election, opposition leaders Jakob Ellemann-Jensen of the Liberals and Søren Pape Poulsen of the Conservatives rejected the idea of teaming up with Frederiksen, saying they aimed to form a centre-right government. The centre-right bloc won 73 seats, well short of a majority, after a poor performance by the Liberals.
Frederiksen, who became Denmark’s youngest prime minister when she took office in 2019 at the age of 41, joined forces with the opposition to increase defense spending in Denmark, a member of the NATO, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His steadfast leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic was partly overshadowed by the mink slaughter episode.
The decision to cull up to 17 million mink to protect humans from mutating coronavirus was made hastily and without the required legislation in place. It dealt a devastating blow to Danish mink farmers, even though there was no evidence that the mutated virus found in some mink was any more dangerous than other strains.
Sofie Carsten Nielsen, leader of the Social Liberal Party and ally of Frederiksen’s first government that forced the prime minister to call a snap election, resigned on Wednesday. Carsten Nielsen took responsibility for the setback the party suffered on Tuesday, when it received votes that halved its presence in parliament.
The Social Liberals’ demise followed Carsten Nielsen voicing his support for Frederiksen after he issued an ultimatum to withdraw party support unless the Prime Minister calls an election.