Denmark | Freedom House

Freedom in the World


Freedom in the World 2016
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Parliamentary elections in June 2015 resulted in the defeat of the Social Democratic Party and the formation of a one-party Liberal minority government—the first time since 1981 that the government has not been composed of a coalition. The right-wing Danish People’s Party achieved a significant victory in the polls, earning 15 more seats to become the second-largest party in the parliament.

Concerns about militant extremism featured prominently in public discussion during the year. In February, a lone gunman carried out a two-part attack in Copenhagen, leading to the deaths of a film director at an event on freedom of expression and a security guard at a synagogue.

The refugee crisis confronting Europe in 2015 caused significant political and humanitarian strain in Denmark. Large numbers of refugees crossed the Danish border during the year, many on their way to seek asylum in other countries, especially Sweden and Finland; approximately 20,000 individuals applied for asylum in Denmark in 2015. In an emergency vote in November, legislators approved a series of controversial restrictions on asylum, affecting detention time, family reunification, and housing.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 40 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12

The current constitution, adopted in 1953, established a single-chamber parliament (the Folketing) and retained a monarch, currently Queen Margrethe II, with mostly ceremonial duties. The parliament’s 179 representatives are elected at least once every four years through a system of modified proportional representation. The monarch chooses the prime minister, usually the leader of the majority party or government coalition.

Parliamentary elections were held in June 2015. The Social Democrats took 47 seats. The populist, anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Danish People’s Party had by far the most successful showing, winning 37 seats to become the second-largest party in the parliament. The center-right Liberal Party, led by Lars Løkke Rasmussen, won 34 seats. The Unity List-Red-Green Alliance took 14 seats; the Liberal Alliance, 13; Alternative, 9; the Social Liberal Party, 8; the Socialist People’s Party, 7; and the Conservative People’s Party, 6. The Liberals formed a one-party minority government in June, and enjoyed support from their allies in the so-called Blue Bloc—the Liberal Alliance, the Conservative People’s Party, and the Danish People’s Party. Rasmussen replaced outgoing prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of the Social Democrats.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 16 / 16

Numerous political parties compete in Denmark. Danish governments most often control a minority of seats in the parliament, ruling with the aid of one or more supporting parties. Since 1909, no single party has held a majority of seats, helping to create a tradition of compromise.

The Social Democrats, historically anchored in the working class, have lost their once-dominant position in Danish politics. Many of their core positions on social services and an expansive public sector have been adopted by parties across the spectrum. The Liberal Party has experienced a similar dynamic, with its positions on the importance of economic competitiveness spreading to the Social Democrats and other parties. The differences between the two major parties are thus variations of degree and emphasis, rather than deeply held ideological distinctions. In recent years, the most significant political ascent has been that of the Danish People’s Party, which has never formally been in government.

The territories of Greenland and the Faroe Islands each have two representatives in the Folketing. They also have their own elected institutions, which have power over almost all areas of governance, except foreign and financial policy. In 2009, Greenland passed the Self-Government Act, which gave it greater control over government functions, including its security apparatus and judicial system.


C. Functioning of Government: 12 / 12

Levels of corruption are generally very low in Denmark, which was ranked 1 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. There were no major cases of corruption in 2015.

A final report on the so-called Taxgate scandal was released in 2014. The case involved leaked information regarding a 2010 tax audit of Thorning-Schmidt, who was an opposition leader at the time. The leak had occurred just one week before the 2011 general elections and had allegedly been carried out by Thorning-Schmidt’s political opponents. Thorning-Schmidt was found not to have violated any tax laws, but the final report was criticized for not reaching any clear conclusions about the origin of the leak.


Civil Liberties: 58 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Domestic media reflect a wide variety of political opinions and are frequently critical of the government. The state finances radio and television broadcasting, but state-owned television companies have independent editorial boards. Independent radio stations are permitted but tightly regulated. Access to the internet is not restricted, and Denmark’s internet penetration rate is among the highest in the world.

Since the 2005 publication of controversial cartoons by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten depicting the prophet Muhammad, Denmark has experienced a series of threats and attacks from militant extremists. In February 2015, a lone gunman—a Danish citizen of Palestinian origin—launched an attack on a freedom of expression event featuring Swedish artist Lars Vilks. He killed one audience member, a movie director, and wounded several police officers before escaping. Hours later, the assailant targeted a religious celebration at a Copenhagen synagogue, killing a security guard and wounding two police officers. The assailant died in a confrontation with police the following morning.

Freedom of worship is legally protected. However, the Evangelical Lutheran Church is subsidized by the government as the official state religion. The faith is taught in public schools, though students may withdraw from religious classes with parental consent. Denmark denies religious-worker visas, thereby restricting access to missionaries entering the country from abroad.

There are no official updated numbers for registered hate crimes motivated by religion due to Danish record-keeping protocols; however, the year 2015 featured anecdotal reports of an increased sense of insecurity among religious minorities in the country. In recent years, the country’s Jewish community has reported increasing anti-Semitic harassment and violence. The Jewish community has for years requested better security for its cultural and educational institutions. In March 2015, following the February terrorist attack, the justice minister requested 20 million Danish kroner ($3 million) in additional funds to protect Jewish institutions. Separately, in June and August, vandals targeted Muslim cemeteries.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12

The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association. Demonstrations and other assemblies in 2015 were peaceful. Civil society is vibrant.

Workers are free to organize, and the labor market is mainly regulated by agreements between employers’ and employees’ organizations. There were no major strikes in 2015. In July, unions won a court case permitting them to strike if low-cost Irish carrier Ryanair did not raise salaries to match local budget airlines. Ryanair subsequently closed its Copenhagen and Billund air bases, although it continued to operate flights to and from both locations.


F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16

The judiciary is independent, and citizens enjoy full due-process rights. The court system consists of 100 local courts, two high courts, and the 15-member Supreme Court, with judges recommended by the government and appointed by the monarch. Prisons generally meet international standards.

Immigration and asylum were contested issues in 2015. Amid an influx of refugees trying to reach European countries in 2015, Danish authorities tightened laws on entry, residence, and asylum, already some of the harshest in Europe. A government proposal to restrict legislation on citizenship, including raising standards for language assessments and extending the waiting period for applicants with a criminal history, was passed in October.

The Danish government received applications for asylum from over 20,000 people in 2015, an increase of more than 40 percent from the number received in 2014; applicants were primarily of Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan origin. A large number of asylum seekers and other migrants also transited through Denmark to reach other countries, particularly Sweden and Finland. Danish-Swedish relations were strained during the year due to the Danish policy of allowing refugees to continue to Sweden without registering them in a central European Union (EU) database. Denmark’s approach to asylum was a dominant and divisive topic of public discussion during the year. In August, a refugee center was defaced with Nazi and xenophobic propaganda, and a car outside the center was set on fire.

In an emergency vote in November, the parliament hastily passed several measures—part of a package proposed by the Liberal government—aimed at tightening legislation on asylum and immigration. Legislators had two working days to read and comment on the proposals before the vote. The measures included expanding the power of security forces to detain migrants, extending the timeline for family reunification cases, and housing single male asylum seekers in tents. Legal experts, members of the public, as well as local and international watchdogs expressed grave concerns with the changes, noting that legislators should have had more time to consider them. Some critics claimed the changes to be inhumane, noting that Denmark’s surplus of housing could be used to accommodate refugees. A number of other bills from the package, including a measure that would enable the government to confiscate personal property from asylum seekers in order to pay for their care, were scheduled for a vote in 2016.

Discrimination, including based on gender identity or sexual orientation, is prohibited by law. A new gender recognition law came into effect in 2014, eliminating previous legislation that had required transgender persons to undergo psychiatric evaluation and sterilization—either by hormone therapy or surgery—when obtaining legal documents reflecting their new gender. While progressive, the law mandates a six-month waiting period, after which applicants must reconfirm their decision. Citizens must be over the age of 18 to apply for a legal change in gender identity.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16

Freedom of movement is protected by law and generally respected by the government, and authorities do not interfere with the rights of individuals to choose their residence, employment, and institution of higher education. However, in March 2015, a new law entered into force allowing police to confiscate the passport of any individual suspected of planning to leave Denmark to engage in armed conflict abroad. Critics have noted that the law, which arose from concerns about Danish nationals traveling to Syria and Iraq in particular, has a low evidentiary threshold, allows room for arbitrary decisions, and requires only minimal judicial oversight. By year’s end, seven citizens either had their passports confiscated or were denied new ones.

Private business activity is free from undue influence by government officials or nonstate actors.

Women enjoy equal rights in Denmark and represent half of the workforce and 37 percent of the parliament. However, disparities have been reported in the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

In 1989, Denmark became the first country in the world to adopt same-sex civil unions, and in 2012, the parliament overwhelmingly passed same-sex marriage legislation enabling couples to wed in the Lutheran state church of their choosing. Priests are not obligated to officiate but, when requested to do so, must find a colleague who will.

Denmark is a destination and transit point for women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation. Following the 2003 adoption of legislation that defined and criminalized such trafficking, the government began working regularly with nongovernmental organizations to implement prevention campaigns. In February 2015, 95 individuals were arrested in the biggest antitrafficking operation in Denmark to date, dubbed Operation Wasp’s Nest. The suspected perpetrators, a group of mostly Romanian nationals, were accused of luring up to 300 individuals to Denmark in a fraudulent scheme worth nearly 40 million Danish kroner ($5.7 million). Trials in the case began in September; three defendants were convicted in December and given prison sentences ranging from two to three years. Proceedings against other defendants were ongoing at year’s end.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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