Before agreeing to become foreign minister last year, Villy Søvndal might have done well to speak with former Konsvervative leader Lene Espersen about the challenges of being the nation’s foreign policy chief while at the same time leading the junior party in a coalition government.
Espersen, like Søvndal last week, eventually chose to step down as party leader. Both left their respective parties in disarray, and in Søvndal’s case it only strengthened the impression that rank and file members of the Socialistisk Folkeparti (SF) were dissatisfied with his inability to manage the party and tend to the country’s foreign affairs interests at the same time.
Søvndal, though, maintains that the decision was all his. And his resignation was, in fact, expected, just not now. The party’s leader since April 2005 and an MP since 1994, it was assumed he would resign in time for a new leader to prepare for the next general election, scheduled for 2015.
During his time as leader, Søvndal has taken SF to new heights; he led his party to a peak 20.6 percent share of the voters in March 2008 – surpassing even Socialdemokraterne (S) at the time – and gave rise to the term ‘Villy effect’ for being able to put a folksy face on a party more known for long-winded academic discussions than political triumphs.
But while Søvndal was effective in bringing the party to prominence and putting it in government for the first time ever, he had trouble accomplishing anything. Since taking over the government as part of the S-led coalition, SF has seen the government veer away from the party’s leftist principles and follow the course set by the third coalition member, the centrist Radikale. On Friday, SF’s voter support stood at 6.3 percent.
Although Søvndal has consistently reiterated that compromise is the name of the game in a coalition government, his inability to pull the government further to the left has party members, and especially voters, criticising him for abandoning the party’s socialist roots. Hastening a process that began even before the election when SF announced it intended to join a S-led government – a sharp change of course for a party that has always sought to define itself as an alternative to the labour party – voters abandoned SF for the surging far-left party Enhedslisten.
Passing on the torch … but to whom?
Despite Søvndal’s reassurances that the timing of the handover was a matter of choice, little suggests that it was: not least the apparent lack of a clear successor as party leader.
Right now, the stage appears to be set for Astrid Krag, the 29-year-old health minister. As of Wednesday, no other realistic candidates had announced they would stand, and the lack of opponents for the post has left some members complaining that the party leadership has been engaged in woefully transparent behind-the-scenes dealings to ensure Krag succeeds Søvndal.
But the benefit of an uncontested candidacy may be worth some internal grumbling if it prevents open conflict between party wings – particularly between Krag, who, despite her lack of experience, has the ambition, talent and support from the right places within the party to be its leader, and Ida Auken, the 34-year-old environment minister, and favourite of the party’s green faction.
A divisive and potentially debilitating public debate about the party’s direction is the last thing it needs at a time when voters are fleeing to Enhedslisten.
While the lack of clear contender speaks against Søvndal’s assurance that his resignation was planned, the upcoming budget negotiations may actually speak for an, if not planned, then at least strategically timed resignation.
Whoever winds up as SF’s next leader, many from both within the party and without say that losing Søvndal as negotiations over next year’s budget begin deals a blow to SF’s hope of leaving a significant mark on it. But on other hand, few can deny that Søvndal, at the age of 60, is fatigued; as foreign minister he has travelled extensively, particularly during the EU presidency. All the while, friction within the government as well as within SF, required him to pay close attention to domestic affairs.
Søvndal’s surprise resignation may actually prove to be the best thing he could have done for the party. He may be resigning at the bottom, but he’s stepping aside for a new leader at a time when the party needs new energy – and he’s got everyone talking about the ‘Villy effect’ again.