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Denmark’s biggest right-wing party deteriorating amid potential conviction of chairman

Six members of Parliament have left the Danish People’s Party this past week citing chairman Morten Messerschmidt’s EU fraud charges, a toxic working environment and influential turndown.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — When Morten Messerschmidt, the chairman of the Danish People's Party, landed at Copenhagen airport after a trip to Paris and unlocked his phone from airplane mode, he probably had to check the news more than once to believe it.

In a span of two hours, his party suddenly lost around a third of its influence in Parliament, when four of his fellow party members decided to quit the Danish People’s Party this past Monday.

Even so, a calm and collected Messerschmidt faced the press in Copenhagen Airport.

“It is a shame that four of my colleagues decided to do this. I will reflect upon this,” he said. “I will also encourage them to handover their position for our substitutes, who are still members of the Danish People’s Party."

But the exited party members have declined Messerschmidt's suggestion and have decided to continue working in Parliament within their own group.

And to make matters worse for Messerschmidt, another member of Parliament left the party the following Tuesday. A sixth member left the party this past Saturday, leaving the Danish People’s Party with a total of 10 mandates out of 179 seats in the Danish Parliament — a big contrast to the 37 seats that in 2015 made them the second largest party in Parliament prior to the most recent national election in 2019.

The Danish People’s Party was established in 1995, originally created as a protest party advocating for less immigration and strict integration. The party continued gaining members and seats in Parliament, peaking there in 2015. From that term they voted for increased border control and supported a law making it possible to bar immigrants from Danish citizenship if they do not shake hands with a representative from the municipality, among other laws that makes it difficult to obtain a Danish passport.

Mostly known for its right-wing immigration and integration policies, the party tried to combine this with their center-positioned economic policies.

“The Danish People’s Party wants to maintain higher taxes for the highest incomes in Denmark,” Flemming Juul Christiansen, associate professor at Roskilde University’s School of Governance, told Courthouse News. “They like the public sector and aims to strengthen health and welfare for the elderly."

He added: “Their welfare politics are based on ‘deservingness,’ that is prioritizing Danes who have obtained these rights based on a lifetime paying taxes. It is a system where the Danish People’s Party wants to see money spend on hard working Danes rather than foreigners who have not contributed as much — according to them."

The appeal to the common Dane built the party’s success over the years. But the unprecedented success in 2015 and the party’s image afterward may have disappointed some voters, Christiansen said — the party slowly transitioned from a protest to mainstream.

Messerschmidt, 41, won the internal vote for new chairman of the Danish People’s Party in late January after former chairman Kristian Thulesen Dahl withdrew his leadership due to a catastrophic municipality election in 2021, where the party shrank from 223 mandates to 91 nationally.

And a legal case about possible fraud concerning EU funds has tainted Messerschmidt’s backing in the party. A city court judge found him guilty of misusing EU funds intended for facilitating EU debates in a weekend assembly arranged for the Danish People’s Party.

But judge Søren Holm Seerup was deemed unfit after an investigation launched by Danish People’s Party revealed he had “liked” social media posts criticizing the party. Seerup had also openly criticized Messerschmidt and the Danish People’s Party on Facebook ahead of Messerschmidt's trial.

Despite being elected chairman by the majority of all party members, which includes people not involved in professional politics, the potential of having a convicted leader proved too much for the party’s Parliament members who decided to leave the Danish People’s Party last week. But Messerschmidt’s case may be just the tip of the iceberg.

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Unlike most parties in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party power is centralized within the top management, leaving little space for common members to have a say in who can compete for Parliament seats for the party.

“The Danish People’s Party is incredibly controlled by the top management,” said Karina Kosiara-Pedersen, associate professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen, in an interview. “We already saw it in 2000, where three elected members got excluded from the Danish People’s Party because they did not like the top management."

She continued: “Not unlike U.S. political parties, Pia Kjærsgaard wanted to let the Danish voters decide who could take part of Danish People’s Party’s leadership. Twenty-two years ago I asked her, ‘Why would you need a member organization, if they are not able to decide who will manage the party?’ She replied, ‘You always need members.'"

Kjærsgaard cofounded the Danish People’s Party and chaired the party from 1995 to 2012. Leaving party members have openly criticized her leadership and partially blamed the working environment she created for their departures.

“Many are nervous when they see Pia in the hallways,” Liselott Blixt, one of the six members who left the party, told Danish broadcaster Danmarks Radio. “It is adult bullying, pressure and a working environment which is not healthy. We have people crying on their way home because of Pia Kjærsgaard, among other things."

Kjærsgaard did not respond to the allegations by press time. But she recently spoke of the controversy on live radio.

“I do not understand that when you leave the party, you start throwing all this bile up. It must be hard to sleep at night,” Kjærsgaard said.

She publicly supported Messerschmidt as chairman of the Danish People’s Party. He was voted in by common members — but not by the entire top management that used to be very close. The recent disruption at the party’s top shows more diversity and voices trying to set a new course for the party.

”I see this as a normalization of the party,” Kosiara-Pedersen said. “Members have for a long time generally agreed on the politics concerning immigration and integration. But economics were uncertain and less prioritized."

Asked why the party suddenly finds itself in turmoil, Kosiara-Pedersen said, “It is fun when there is success and things move forward. Then you can compromise. But when things are not looking bright anymore, it may be easier to leave. There may even be considerations of whether you would be reelected with the party’s status quo."

Messerschmidt promised to get the Danish People’s Party back to old virtues, meaning strengthening the top management again. But this hierarchal construction has made it difficult to innovate politically, Christiansen said, which is one of the reasons to why the Danish People’s Party is having this crisis not being able to attract voters.

And with the biggest party in Denmark — the Social Democratic Party — having clearly defined economic policies that favor elders from the working class, and with new parties erupting such as Nye Borgerlige, which appeals to stricter immigration policies, the Danish People’s Party will have a tough time winning their old voters back. Especially if Messerschmidt is found guilty of fraud.

But the size and magnitude of the Danish People’s Party’s stature means it will likely survive the next parliamentary election. It takes a minimum of about 2% of all votes in Denmark to be eligible for Parliament.

“Danish People’s Party is now bound to Morten Messerschmidt. It will be catastrophic for the party if he gets convicted for fraud. The party still has leverage from the minimum of 2%, so I believe that their next election will be about not getting too close to that line,” Christiansen said.

Kosiara-Pedersen agreed. “I will treat a beer if they end below 2%. But I would not bet my house on it, because it is not impossible for them to end there. However, I do see something they can build on for the future," she said.

Courthouse News correspondent Lasse Sørensen is based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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