Reputation versus office: Why populist radical right governmental participation has differed between Sweden and Denmark

Date01 November 2021
Published date01 November 2021
International Political Science Review
2021, Vol. 42(5) 613 –630
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/01925121211020592
Reputation versus office: Why
populist radical right governmental
participation has differed between
Sweden and Denmark
Duncan McDonnell
Griffith University, Australia
Annika Werner
Australian National University, Australia
Malin Karlsson
Försvarshögskolan – Swedish Defence University, Sweden
Sweden and Denmark have presented contrasting relationships between centre-right and populist radical
right (PRR) parties. In Sweden, the centre-right has refused cooperation with the Sweden Democrats
(Sverigedemokraterna) (SD), even when this cost the centre-right office. However, in Denmark, coalitions
led by centre-right parties have cooperated with the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) (DF) on
multiple occasions. Through a controlled comparison, we examine what explains these different outcomes.
Using Chapel Hill Expert Surveys and public opinion data, we firstly look at the policy congruence between
parties and the social acceptability of cooperation. We then examine interview material with representatives
from centre-right and PRR parties in Sweden and Denmark to see their explanations of cooperation and
non-cooperation. We conclude that, while the office goals of Danish centre-right parties, along with the
policy focus and uncontroversial past of DF, explain that case, the reputation and past of SD has precluded
a similar outcome.
Populist radical right, coalition formation, cordon sanitaire, Sweden, Denmark
Corresponding author:
Duncan McDonnell, School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, 170 Kessels Rd, Nathan,
Brisbane, QLD 4111, Australia.
1020592IPS0010.1177/01925121211020592International Political Science ReviewMcDonnell et al.
614 International Political Science Review 42(5)
While populist radical right (PRR) parties in some Western European countries have become
acceptable partners for centre-right parties in the twenty-first century, in others they have not. In
France and Belgium, National Rally (Rassemblement National) and Flemish Interest (Vlaams
Belang) remain excluded from alliance calculations by all other parties. By contrast, in Austria and
Italy, the Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs) (FPÖ) and the Northern
League (Lega Nord) have formed several governments with centre-right parties. Notably, Denmark
has seen PRR–centre-right governmental cooperation occur on more occasions than anywhere else
in Western Europe, most recently between 2015 and 2019, when the Danish People’s Party (Dansk
Folkeparti) (DF) provided parliamentary support for minority centre-right administrations. By
contrast, in Denmark’s close neighbour, Sweden, the centre-right alliance has maintained a strong
cordon sanitaire against the PRR SD, even when that stance meant the centre-right could not
remain in government after the 2014 elections (Heinze, 2018: 298–300). The Danish and Swedish
cases in 2014 and 2015 thus raise a question relevant not only for our understanding of PRR–
centre-right relationships but more generally for theories about cooperation between parties: Why
did two sets of ideologically similar centre-right and PRR parties (Jungar and Jupskås, 2014), in
countries with generally analogous political cultures and development trajectories, give rise to two
very different cooperation outcomes?
The main theoretical explanation for why parties ally with one another to create governing
majorities is based on considerations of policy, office and votes (Müller and Strøm, 1990), which
has been widely applied to European multi-party parliamentary democracies. Put simply, parties
weigh up the extent to which cooperation with other parties will help them achieve the policies
they care about, secure them the best office spoils, and have a positive effect on their votes. The
decision to cooperate of course may involve a trade-off between different combinations of these
three. In this article, we use the logics of policy, office and votes in order to understand why coop-
eration between the mainstream centre-right and the PRR occurred in Denmark, but not in Sweden.
These are interesting cases for several reasons, particularly because they allow us to examine
cooperation not only from the perspective of the centre-right but also from the viewpoint of elec-
torally strong radical right populists whose support is decisive for centre-right government forma-
tion. We argue that, rather than the objective opportunities of the policy, office and votes dimensions,
it was the centre-right parties’ subjective assessments as well as judgements based on the PRR
party’s past that was central to cooperation outcomes in 2014–2015.
The article proceeds as follows. In the next section, we discuss the established main theoretical
framework of coalition theory. We then briefly present our two cases and methods, which we set up
as a controlled comparison (Slater and Ziblatt, 2013). In the analysis section, we first eliminate the
rival hypotheses of the objective fit of the relevant Swedish and Danish parties in terms of policy,
office and votes. We show that cooperation between PRR parties and their centre-right counterparts
would have produced minimal winning coalitions in 2014 (Sweden) and 2015 (Denmark), that their
policy profiles do not closely align, and that both populations have become more open over time to
the idea of cooperation between these parties (albeit to different degrees). The second part of our
analysis focuses on how the relevant parties perceived the importance of policy, office and votes as
well as the role of the PRR parties’ past. We base this analysis on interviews we conducted between
2017 and 2019 with representatives from PRR and centre-right parties in Sweden and Denmark.
From these, we see clearly that the parties in Denmark and Sweden diverged on the assessment of
all dimensions: from the importance of office and policy differences to reputational costs and the
predicted reaction by voters. In the conclusions, we argue that a crucial aspect to understanding
mainstream cooperation with a PRR party is not only the latter’s present but also its past. In particu-
lar, electoral strength, policy profiles and strategic outlook are of lesser relevance if a party’s extreme
right history is seen as putting it beyond the pale a priori.1

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