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Borgen creator says coalition governments shouldn't be seen as 'some kind of weakness'

06/28/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/27/2016 05:59 EDT
It doesn't seem like the kind of concept that would become a worldwide phenomenon. Come on, a television drama about well-meaning politicians trying to do the right thing in a Danish coalition government?

But the series Borgen, named for Denmark's parliamentary buildings, has aired in 80 countries and has become an obsession in Britain.

Borgen only recently hit the air in Canada – TVOntario is currently showing the first season – but it already has a devoted Canadian following.

The show revolves around an accidental prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg. She leads a smallish centre-left party, but after scandals and political mishaps befall the leaders of the main left and right parties on the eve of an election, she's given the opportunity to fashion a national coalition.

Borgen is full of political intrigue, ambition and betrayals, of course, and also explores the tangled relationship between government and the media. But the plotlines largely follow debates over policy direction and the work of grinding out the politically achievable.

As Borgen creator and head writer Adam Price cheerfully admitted to Sunday Edition host Michael Enright, it was not an obvious formula for a hit series.

"I had several pitching sessions before they gave the go-ahead," said Price, "and my second pitch was, 'This is a series about the price you pay when you want the most difficult job. And when you're a woman at the same time, that price will be very high and will be very painful to watch.'

"And they liked that far better than, 'This is a series about Danish coalition politics,'" Price added, laughing.

When she's really on her game, Nyborg's greatest political skill as prime minister is to put expedience in the service of her principles. But even her victories exact a grievous toll on her and her family life.

Much of Borgen's dramatic tension comes from the conflict between idealism and principle on one side and ambition and the grubby, practical realities of governing on the other. As the heady buzz of ascending to power fades, Nyborg's face and mannerisms show how the brutal logic of power forces her to swallow her principles.

Rather than wallow in the lurid spectacle of venal, scheming politicos plying their amoral trade in Netflix's House of Cards, Price wanted to build his stories around the struggle to hang on to one's ideals.

"I thought, let's try to lean a little more towards the idealistic side instead of always leaning toward Machiavelli and the cynical side. Let's try to tell a story about democracy where we actually pay tribute to democracy and some of the people who go about their business in daily politics, because not all of them are bad people, but they are sometimes forced into very, very difficult choices."  

Coalition tension

Borgen is also a civics course, of sorts, on political coalitions — the horse-trading, the calculations, the gamesmanship, the ability to turn rivals into partners and to make those partners remember who's boss.

It's also about a political culture in which such coalitions are the norm, unlike in Canada, where they're usually seen as an unthinkable aberration.

Denmark has not been ruled by a single-party government in 35 years. Of the 29 governments that have ruled the country in the past 100 years, most have been coalitions.

It can be messy, as evidence by this month's federal election in Denmark, where the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party enjoyed an electoral breakthrough that will likely lead to an influential role in the government.

But Price says coalitions have a long history of providing good government in Denmark.

"We have had nothing but coalitions, and it's certainly not looked upon as some kind of weakness. It's looked upon as a necessity in order to hear everybody. It makes legislation and the daily ruling in parliament somewhat more difficult, but we have developed a very strong tradition of political compromise," says Price.

"[Political leaders] need to be willing to let the others get to the table once in a while. It demands a strong leader who is very credible within her or his own party because he or she will need to force through a lot of compromise, and that includes compromise on several quite core issues for his or her own party."


You can hear Michael Enright's full interview with Adam Price, as well as a panel discussion on coalition politics in Canada, this weekend on The Sunday Edition, just after the 9 a.m. ET news.

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Also on this week's The Sunday Edition:

The Sunday Edition's (First) Annual Summer Reading List:  Michael's "arbitrary, biased and personal" list of recommendations.

Complicated Grief Disorder - Essay by Emelia Symington Fedy: For years, Emelia relied on anti-depressants – for the sadness of a break-up and for overall general anxiety. But the death of her mother, just after the birth of her first child, sent her into a spiral of grief that no medication could cure. That was a good thing.

No More Silence: The issue of Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women continues to figure prominently in the national conversation. On National Aboriginal Day, Michael hosted a panel discussion in front of an audience in Toronto that included Ontario's deputy minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Deborah Richardson-Goulais, Audrey Huntley of Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto and the journalist, writer and artist Angela Sterritt.

Svetlana Stalin: Joseph Stalin's only daughter and favourite child was known as the "Kremlin Princess," but her life was anything but storybook. She is the subject of a new book by acclaimed Canadian biographer Rosemary Sullivan that reads like a political thriller.

Behind the scenes at the radio show: Every now and then, when our talented host sits down behind the microphone, he starts a wrestling match with the words on the page in front of him. And every now and then, hilarity ensues.

End of the season music this week by: Joseph Haydn, Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, Terra Lightfoot, Miles Davis and more.

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