A Tour of the Danish Parliament (in time for the Election)

Guided tour of parliament in Denmark looking at political paintings

‘Happy 100th anniversary of the Constitutional Act granting votes for women in Denmark!’ is a bit of a mouthful, but it might come in handy today, as the Danes are celebrating 100 years of equal voting rights. Cue three days of celebrations (and a day off today, the lucky things). The big anniversary, with its female-friendly leanings, encouraged Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt to call a general election on 18th June, so things are pretty hectic in Copenhagen right now.

To get in the political mood and find out what all the fuss was about, I took a guided tour of the Folketinget (Parliament) in English, and got to see weird and wonderful paintings, all the Constitutional Acts and the all-important Chamber itself, where the politicians debate. Set in Slotsholmen, a small island in the city centre, the Folketinget is part of a wing in Copenhagen’s Christiansborg Palace. It’s a great place to learn about Danish culture and how their laws developed, as you’ll see from my tour notes.

Danish parliament decor seen on guided tour
The statues on the back wall (bottom left) are of different workers – farmers, fishermen, etc. Statues at the front (bottom right) are allegorical figures like justice and truth. The ceiling is carved with various crests and symbols for parts of Denmark and surrounding countries.

The Folketinget

We started with a timeline of politics in Denmark, from the 1600s to the present day, and saw artefacts such as the spittoon and cigar holder that used to be on hand for MPs. I was left wondering if the spittoon should be brought back for blokes who spit on the street for no apparent reason.

Upstairs were the speakers’ portraits – each speaker is given a 30,000 DKK allowance (£3,000) to commission their own painting. They can choose the artist, which means there’s a real range of styles in the room, from photo-realism to mixed media.

Later we also saw some of the former Prime Ministers’ portraits (again, they commissioned them and chose artists), which were much weirder – Mogens Kølkjær’s attempt at a Francis Bacon-esque painting of Viggo Kampmann was the kind of thing to give people nightmares, though art critic Lisbeth Bonde called it ‘successful’. I’m not sure the painting of Jens Otto Krag by Johannes Hofmeister deserves to be on someone’s fridge door, let alone on the wall here, but each to their own…

  • There are seven different political parties with MPs representing them.
  • 179 seats are up for grabs in the Chamber – not a lot, considering the Danish population is 5 million. Germany, with the same population, has “about 5,000 MPs”, according to our tour guide.
  • More than 1/3 of MPs are female.
  • Greenland and the Faroe Islands have two seats each.
  • Politicians who want to speak are given five minutes to do so, but they also have to spend 25 minutes taking questions from everyone else in the Chamber.
  • You can vote by touch screen in the house – red for no, green for yes and yellow for abstaining.
  • Parliament has its own hair stylist.
  • The Royal Family have to sign legislation, but parliament can overrule them if they refuse to sign something they don’t support.
  • 25 standing committees meet in the rooms within parliament.
Grundloven 100th anniversary of Danish democracy and right to votes for women
The 1915 Constitutional Act (top left) and the 1483 Coronation Charter (top right). The women at the bottom are marching to celebrate the 1915 Act being passed.

The Constitution and its Big Anniversary

Upstairs in the Lobby we were able to see the King’s Act, which was in force from 1660-1848. The King at the time, Frederik III, didn’t actually let his people know the Act existed for 44 years (talk about awkward). Even older was the 1483 Coronation Charter, which saw King Hans’ power reduced in favour of bishops in nobles; the text said nobles could form a kind of government. The seals from every relevant bishop and noble were attached at the bottom instead of a signature.

We also got up close to the revised Constitutional Acts, including the Act (Grundloven) of 1915 which gave women and servants the right to vote, and allowed women to stand for election from 1918. June 5th marks 100 years since the Act was passed, and it’s an important anniversary for women’s rights in Denmark. As part of the centenary celebrations, the Queen and other high-profile figures will wear white dresses to honour the processions 100 years earlier, when up to 12,000 women marched through the streets.

The government also allocated a 3.5m DKK budget to spend on anniversary activities throughout Denmark, covering democracy, rights and the point of voting. Whilst this seems like a lot of money, so many people are apathetic about voting (as the recent British elections proved) and anything that gets people more engaged in politics – to realise how lucky they are not to live in a one-party state, for example – has got to be a good thing.

Danish Prime Minister portraits and life at the Folketinget, including bikes for workers
Outside I spotted parliamentary bicycles (top left). The parliament entrance is seen top right. On the bottom are two hideous paintings of former Prime Ministers and some souvenir Liberal Alliance water from a meeting taking place when we visited.

The 2015 Election

Copenhagen is littered with posters of grinning politicians, but it’s hard to get a sense of the party policies from them. Mostly you’re just given a name and a face, as if that’s enough (well, maybe it is for some voters). John Erik Wagner’s controversial poster made international headlines, but I didn’t see it anywhere in the city. Believe me, a politician wearing a cowboy hat, a holster and nothing else would have been a photo opportunity…

Here are the parties you need to know about, not all of which have MPs in the Chamber:

  • Red-Green Alliance: left-wing.
  • Socialist People’s Party: left-wing.
  • Social Democrats: centre-left.
  • The Alternative: centre-left.
  • Danish Social Liberal Party: centre-left to centre.
  • Christian Democrats – centre.
  • Conservatives: centre-right.
  • Venstre, Denmark’s Liberal Party: centre-right.
  • Danish People’s Party: right-wing.
  • Liberal Alliance: centre-right to just plain right-wing.

Evidently, putting ‘liberal’ in your name doesn’t mean you’re liberal, and having ‘left’ in your name (venstre, in Danish) doesn’t mean you’re at all left-wing, so nothing is straightforward here. Fortunately, Reddit pointed me towards this summary of what the different political parties want, and it’s worth a read.

As mentioned on the Folketinget tour, a party only needs to gain 2% of the vote to win four seats in parliament, which explains why there’s such a big mix of people in the Chamber, and why coalitions are pretty much a given.

This was a really interesting time to take the Folketinget tour, and it was easy to fit into a day’s sightseeing, as Christiansborg is a major attraction in itself and is close to loads of other sights, from museums to cool shopping streets. If you’re able to add the tour to your itinerary, you’ll come away with a better understanding of what it means to be Danish.

Cheesy painting of politican at the parliament in Copenhagen
Is it Arnold Schwarzenegger? No, it’s Anders Fogh Rasmussen! (Former PM).

Visiting Notes: The tour is free but you need to pre-book online, making sure you choose one of the English speaking options. Tours are held on specific dates – some Sundays and public holidays at 1pm, as well as on weekdays at 1pm during the summer. Arrive 15 minutes early and be prepared for a security check before you start; the tour lasts 45 minutes.

The entrance is at the side of the complex – head under the archway to the left of the tower entrance (the photogenic bit which faces the canal boat tour ticket office) to Rigsdagsgården. You’ll see the parliament building on the right, and you enter just to the bottom right of the big wooden doors.