New Life for the Danish Progress Party?


In the early 1970s, Mogens Glistrup captured worldwide attention as the leader of the Danish tax revolt. Just one year after he formed the Progress Party, it won 16 percent of the vote in the 1973 general election, becoming the second-largest Danish political party.

Over the next decade, however, the party lost popularity, dwindling to 3.6 percent of the vote in the 1984 election. Voters had turned to the party in protest after the center-right government increased taxes and public spending as never before in Danish history. But the Progress Party did not really have any alternative to offer. Glistrup wanted to abolish income taxes but did not have any strong position against taxes in general. He did not want to dismantle the welfare state; on the contrary, more spending on health and state pensions was—and still is—at the top of the party's agenda.

During the 1980s, the Progress Party turned its attention away from high taxes and to the increasing number of immigrants to Denmark, especially from Iran, Lebanon, and Sri Lanka. In a Le Pen–like style, Mogens Glistrup—when released from prison a few years ago after a tax-fraud sentence—declared that the battle against the Muslim invasion was his main political ambition. Interestingly, the anti-immigrant policies did not gain support for the party.

Recently, the party has toned down its anti-immigrant rhetoric, under the new leadership of Pia Kjaersgaard, a former domestic helper in her 40s. And it is gaining support. In the 1987 general elections, it garnered 4.8 percent of the vote. In last May's election, support jumped to 9 percent. And in later opinion polls it has reached an all-time high of some 20 percent. Kjaersgaard doesn't doubt the reason—higher taxes and public spending under conservative prime minister Paul Schluter.

Is history going to repeat itself? Or will the party this time be able to present a proper alternative—politically, economically, and philosophically—that will give it a more lasting support? One inspiration could be the Norwegian Progress Party, which has discovered (some) libertarianism and has garnered a 20 percent following in the opinion polls.

Unfortunately, there is very little fresh blood in the Progress Party, and Kjaersgaard herself, very simplistic in her thinking and speaking, is unlikely to make a major change. "Pia should read a little more Milton Friedman and Adam Smith," complains Kim Behnke, a 27-year-old member of Parliament.

Nevertheless, the growing support for the Progress Party has had some tangible results. The government, which until recently rejected privatization, has suddenly become very interested. But the slight change of attitude seems to be reversing the Progress Party's gains. The party itself remains hardly more than a bufferstock, absorbing the protest vote but unable to use it constructively.