The Division of Powers

The Danish Constitutional Act divides power into three independent branches to prevent the abuse of power.



The tripartition of power

The principle of the tripartition of power was entered in the Constititutional Act of 1949 and still applies to this day.

The tripartition of power is aimed at ensuring that misuse of power cannot take place. Power is divided thus:

  • The Government constitutes the executive power
  • Parliament and Government constitute the legislative power
  • The courts of justice constitute the judicial power

Section 3 of the Constitutional Act lays down that “Legislative authority shall be vested in the King and the Folketing conjointly. Executive authority shall be vested in the King. Judicial authority shall be vested in the courts of justice”.

Today, Section 3 is interpreted in another way than it was in 1849 but the basic principle of a tripartition is still the core principle upon which our democracy rests. The legislative power is undertaken by Government and Parliament.

Read more below about the three branches: the Parliament, the Government and the Courts.

Picture: The Danish Parliament

The Danish Parliament exercises legislative power, which means that it passes the laws that apply in Denmark. The Parliament is also responsible for adopting the state's budgets, approving the state's accounts, exercising control of the Government and taking part in international cooperation. 

The courts exercise judicial power in Denmark and have exclusive competence to decide whether Danish citizens or foreigners residing in Denmark have broken the laws of the country. Neither the Danish Parliament nor the Government has authority to judge a citizen.

Picture: The supreme court

Everyone has the right to a fair trial. This right is laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights and provides all citizens with a guarantee that court cases must be decided within reasonable time by an independent, impartial court of law. The provisions of the Constitutional Act of Denmark protect the independence of courts by separating the judicial power from the executive and legislative powers.

The letter of the law prevails

The Danish Parliament, exercising legislative power, enacts laws in Denmark, whereas the courts interpret these laws. This means that judges must not allow themselves to be influenced by the Parliament, the Government, the press or others when pronouncing judgement. They must be guided exclusively by the letter of the law.

A judge cannot be dismissed

In order to ensure the independence of courts, Section 64 of the Constitutional Act protects judges against being dismissed or transferred to other work. According to this provision in the Act, the Parliament and the Government must not influence the judicial power and the court’s decision by threatening to dismiss a judge.

The Government exercises executive power and governs the country in accordance with the laws enacted by the Parliament. The Danish Government normally comprises about 20 Ministers and is headed by the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister determines the composition of the Government with respect to the number of Ministers and their remits. Each Minister has a specific area of responsibility: the Minister for the Environment is responsible for environmental issues, the Minister for Taxation is responsible for matters involving taxation, and so on. Ministerial responsibilities are relatively fixed, but sometimes ministries are combined or remits are changed. The Prime Minister can also appoint new Ministers for policy areas that the Government considers particularly important. 

In the majority of cases, Ministers are Members of Parliament, but this is not a requirement. If a Minister is appointed, who is not an MP, he or she is may of course speak in the Chamber during debates, but is not entitled to vote.

The Work of the Government

The Government’s Ministers run the country in accordance with the laws enacted by the Danish Parliament. The Government also has an influence on the passing of new laws because most Bills are drafted and introduced by the Government.

Picture: The Danish Parliament

Ministers govern Denmark through their ministries and ensure that laws are not just rules on a piece of paper, but that they are in fact implemented.

The Government introduces most Bills

All MPs are entitled to introduce Bills and proposals for other decisions that the Parliament must consider. In practice, however, the majority of Bills approved by the Parliament have been drawn up by the Government. Since the Government usually has the support of a majority in the Parliament, or has reached a political agreement or a compromise prior to presenting a Bill, it is sure to obtain a majority for the Bill. In addition, the Government can rely on help from the various ministries where a large number of experts are engaged in drawing up Bills.

The Government and Danish foreign policy

The Government acts on behalf of Denmark in relation to other countries and represents Denmark in international organisations such as NATO and the UN. But the Parliament determines the fundamental principles for the country's foreign policy, and most foreign policy decisions regarding agreements with other countries must be approved by the Parliament. The Government cannot decide to contribute Danish troops to international military operations without consulting the Parliament first. However, there is one exception: the Government may use military force to defend Denmark in the event of an attack by another country. But such military measures must be presented to the Parliament immediately afterwards. If the Parliament is not sitting, e.g. during a holiday, it must be convened without delay.

The Government and General Elections

Picture: The Danish Parliament

According to the Constitutional Act, there must be a general election at least once every four years, but elections may also be called more frequently at the Prime Minister’s discretion. If the Government loses its majority, or the Parliament passes a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister must call a general election in pursuance of the Constitutional Act. 

When an election has been called, the sitting Government will only step back if it has lost its majority, or if the Parliament passes a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. If, after the election, the Government has lost its majority, it must of course resign. 

When the seats have been distributed after an election, the new Parliament has been found. If the Government did not step back when the general election was called and it still has a majority, it will remain in office. But if it has lost its majority, the Government must resign. The political party leaders will then advise the Queen on whom to invite to lead the negotiations to form a new Government. The person who has the support of a majority of party leaders is chosen as the chief negotiator and usually also becomes Prime Minister. 

The Queen has no real political influence

In principle, the Constitutional Act gives the Queen the authority to appoint and dismiss Ministers, but she has no real political influence. In practice, it is the Prime Minister who selects Ministers, and subsequently the Queen formally appoints the Ministers recommended by the Prime Minister.

The Danish System of Government

Picture: The Danish Parliament

The Danish system of government is known as negative parliamentarianism, which means that the Government need not have a majority in the Parliament – but it must not have a majority against it. If there is a majority against it, the Government must resign. The system of negative parliamentarianism means that Denmark can be run by a minority government. In fact, most Danish governments have been minority governments, where the Government parties have had less than 90 of the 179 seats in the Parliament.

A Government's parliamentary support

When a political party proposes a candidate for the post of Prime Minister, by advising the Queen that she invites this person to form a Government after a general election, this does not mean that the party will necessarily be part of the Government. Nor does it imply that the party will support all Bills the Government may later introduce in the Parliament. What the party indicates by supporting a given candidate is simply that it will not vote against the Government and force it to resign, thus pledging parliamentary support for the Government. Of course, parties offering parliamentary support for the Government may require something in return in the form of political influence on laws and compromises, for instance.

Cooperation between political parties

It is decisive for a minority Government to be able to enter into agreements with other parties so it can get Bills through the Parliament. The extent of cooperation between the Government and the parties giving parliamentary support varies greatly. In some cases, the parties have very close cooperation, leading to a situation where, in practice, it appears as if the support parties were part of the Government. In other cases, a looser form of cooperation exists, with changing majorities from case to case. Cooperation between parties in the Chamber means that it will not be necessary to change a large number of laws when a new Government takes over.

The opposition exercises control over the Government

In practice, the Danish system of government, where the country is usually run by minority governments, means that the Government must pursue policies which can gain the support of a majority in the Parliament. Otherwise it may have a majority against it and be forced to resign. The opposition which, by definition, comprises the parties that are against the Government, will do what it can to ensure that the Government does in fact pursue such policies, e.g. by putting questions to Ministers or requesting a consultation.