PM battling internal upheaval over “stupid” reforms

Criticism of the government’s proposed stimulus package continues to pour in – mostly from disappointed members of the coalition

As the government has begun the effort of selling the public on the growth stimulus package it unveiled yesterday, it is finding that the harshest criticism of the plan is coming from within its own ranks.

Even before the details of the plan were unveiled, two top figures in the ruling Socialdemokraterne (S) party were forced to come out in support of the package, despite having indicated that they did not.

The employment minister, Mette Frederiksen, was unhappy that her reform of the kontanthjælp social welfare benefits system was tied so closely to the proposal to lower corporate tax rates. PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt was reportedly furious when reports of dissention by Frederiksen and then by Henrik Sass Larsen, an MP and architect of the party's strategy, began to emerge.

Other Socialdemokraterne politicians expressed everything from mild disbelief to outrage at what they see as a total reversal of the party's core values.

“I have a very, very hard time recognising my party. I am extremely disappointed,” Copenhagen’s deputy mayor for children and young people, Anne Vang (S), told Politiken newspaper. “I think it is sad that reductions in public service that will result in fewer teachers and less help for students in order to finance corporate tax breaks.”

Local S leaders also questioned the proposed reforms.

“They have apparently found it necessary to do things they have previously spoken against,” Thomas Gyldal Petersen, the mayor of the Copenhagen suburb of Herlev, told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. Petersen anticipates significant cuts in aid to children, schools and the elderly in his council and predicted “a really difficult election for the party if the government does not change course before the term expires.”

The outcry from coalition partner, Socialistisk Folkeparti (SF), has been even more strident.

Outspoken MP Özlem Cekic called the proposed reforms “stupid” on her Facebook page and said that the “lowering corporate taxes is not and never will be SF policy.”

This is the second time this year Cekic has challenged the government on a planned reform. In July, she broke ranks with her party and voted against the government's tax reform. At that time, she was punished by the party leadership, but this time around, she is not the only member of the coalition party criticising the move. 

Most prominently, SF leader Annette Vilhelmsen, who is also the business and growth minister, was absent from the official press conference announcing the reforms.

In the Jutland town of Horsens, SF members of the local council voted unanimously to demand that party leaders pull the party out of the coalition government.

"We want to pull out of the government,” councillor Bjarne Sørensen told Politiken newspaper. “SF long been absent from policies the government has proposed, and this latest proposal goes against everything that we stand for.”

Gitte Terp Henriksen, a member of the Furesø local council, joined her counterparts in Horsens in asking that the party leave the government.

"We have simply had it,” she told Politiken. “We should leave the government and have an internal discussion about what it really means to be in parliament and why we should be there.”

Holger Nielsen, a former party leader and the current tax minister, said he was open to discussing whether SF should withdraw from the government, although he felt it would be “very foolish” to do so.

“There are some critical voices among the rank and file, but that is often the case within a party,” Nielsen told Politiken. “Many people find the plan controversial, and I respect their views, but I still think that this is a plan with many facets that SF can support.”

Thorning-Schmidt remained combative in the face of the criticism.

“People can say what they want,” she told Jyllands-Posten. “This is good policy. (Copenhagen mayor) Frank Jensen supports it, as do other mayors. The plan is a big bouquet; it would be a surprise if there were no thorns.”

Thorning-Schmidt defended the tax cuts, arguing that a healthy private sector would revitalise the public sector. She underscored that both Frederiksen and Larsen were both now back in the fold and speaking publicly in favour of the proposal.