Denmark's election a litmus test for Europe's far-right politics

Denmark's election Thursday is the first national poll in northern Europe to gauge appeal for radical politics since the Norway killings carried out by far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik.

By , Staff writer

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    Leader of the Danish Social Democrats, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, right, gestures while the leader of Danish People’s Party, Pia Kjaersgaard, listens during a TV broadcast debate in Copenhagen Tuesday Sept. 13.
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After a media firestorm over Danish Muslim candidates accused of “infiltrating” politics here, Prime Minister Rasmussen declared a culture war with immigrants and Islam. Not law or economics but a war of values is “decisive” for Denmark’s future, he said.

That wasn’t current Premier Lars Løkke Rasmussen talking about tomorrow's Danish national elections. It was declared by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, now NATO secretary-general, in 2002. It signaled the start of a long accommodation by mainstream Scandinavian politics with a radical right that wants to halt the impact of Muslims on European culture.

Whether that message will still sell is unclear. The Danish economy is less well off. Thursday's election also follows the murderous rampage in Norway of Anders Behring Breivik, whose views on immigration and Islam are similar to those of the radical Danish People's Party (DPP) that has been seen as the power behind the Danish throne for a decade.

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Polls show Denmark is about to elect its first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who leads a center-left coalition.

Extreme goes mainstream

A long shift to right-wing populist extremes in a region known for its liberality and well-ordered prosperity has taken place below the radar. But the July 22 killings by Mr. Breivik brought a largely unwanted focus to it. Breivik shot and killed 69 people at a youth camp run by Norway’s ruling center-left party – the children of an elite class that he saw as aiding and abetting Muslims bent on destroying “Christian Europe.”

Norwegian voters this week sharply rejected the radical right Progress Party with which Breivik was once associated. In local elections, the radical party slipped from 18 to 11 percent of the vote, and from the No. 2 to the No. 3 party in Oslo. Norwegian voters boosted the ruling Labor party – whose children Breivik targeted.

The radical right hardly defines Europe’s northern tier. And the shock out of Norway may stunt extremism. Still, the growth of the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the new True Finns in Finland, the DPP in Denmark, the Sweden Democrats, and the Progress Party in Norway have shaped politics here in ways unimaginable a decade ago. Views formerly seen as extreme have been brought into the mainstream.

“The strength of the DPP,” says Copen­hagen-based anthropologist and media scholar Peter Hervik, speaking of the party that helped pass 49 laws restricting immigration and lately tried to engineer border-control stations in Den­mark, “is that the minority government is entirely dependent on it. What the DPP means when it opposes ‘multiculturalism’ is the presence of visible Muslims and migrants.”

On Sept. 22, the London-based Chatham House convenes a meeting on the “Spread of Populist Extremism in Europe,” based on a year of investigations of radical right parties and movements in cities around the continent.

Today’s radical-right leaders are not swastika-carrying fascists. They are savvy and media-friendly. They hobnob with a “globerati” that see Islam as a totalitarian ideology bent on destroying the West. They prefer confrontation to compromise or dialogue; they often define political opponents as “enemies.” Most want to reduce or abolish the European Union. They form alliances with gay, feminist, and Jewish groups – unheard-of in the old right. They seek to channel public emotions and fears and speak for the common man.

“What about Somali or Arab families of eight that are on the dole?” asks a retiree at a working-class pub outside London – a sentiment echoed in Denmark and Holland. “Why are they here, and why are we paying?”

Right-wing extremists as celebrities

Some, like Dutch radical Geert Wilders, who wants to ban the Quran and is greatly admired by Breivik, exert a celebritylike pull. “He’s the only person my students want to talk about,” says Meindart Fennema, author of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a biography on Mr. Wilders.

Wilders, speaking last spring to the Magna Carta Foundation in Rome, cohosted by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, compared the spread of Islam and Muslims to the invasion of the barbarians, an infiltration not seen “until it was too late,” he said. “It is time to wake up. We need to confront reality and we need to speak the truth. The truth is that Islam is evil, and the reality is that Islam is a threat to us.”

So effective is the anti-Islam right wing that ahead of Thursday's elections the traditional left has scrambled to appear equally tough. The leader of the Socialist People’s Party in Denmark, Villy Sovndal, recently told off an Islamic leader in public, saying that socialists have “fought for freedom for 50 years, and I am so fed up with listening to extremist religious groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and their rubbish about no freedom.... They are a bunch of benighted, reactionary, religious relics of the past.”

Radicals here regularly call Islam “medieval,” a “mafia,” a disease, or akin to Nazism. Jussi Hallo-Aho, the True Finns’ No. 2, called Islam a religion of pedophilia. The effect contributes to a desensitization to invective that might be branded hate speech in the United States. Even in England, disparaging remarks about Muslims have “passed the dinner-table test,” as Baroness Warsi, a minister in the Tory coalition, put it last spring.

In a 2011 study, “Annoying Differences,” Mr. Hervik details three media campaigns in Denmark made up of thousands of articles, editorials, and prime-time TV news segments that have painted Islam and Muslims in a poor light. Among other things, the study says that the 2006 Danish cartoons insulting the prophet Muhammad, the ones that inflamed the Islamic world, were hardly a matter of free speech: They were part of a systematic anti-Islam editorial campaign by the Jyllands-Posten daily that dated to Rasmussen’s “culture war.”

The DPP and an obliging media have helped make Denmark the hub of the Scandinavian radical right. “Since 2000, the DPP has become one of the most successful right-wing parties in Western Europe,” says Susi Meret, an expert at Aalburg University in Arhus. “Wilders is there all the time.”

For European radicals, the DPP is a giant oak under which to gather and learn, a model of organization and discipline. “The Sweden Democrats copied their program wholesale,” says Tufts University political scientist David Art, author of “Inside the Radical Right.”

Feeling no responsibility for Breivik

Breivik’s manifesto quotes Norwegian blogger “Fjordman,” who calls the DPP the only party with “real spine.” The DPP’s winning formula, imitated by Wilders and others, is to align itself with the main Danish party, share power and press for results, but avoid any responsibility to govern. “They are the prototype,” says Mr. Art. “They get credit for leading but don’t suffer the responsibility of incumbency.”

Wilders’s Dutch Freedom Party operates the same way. The formula “gives them the freedom to do and say many things they would not otherwise be able to say or do, things that used to be taboo, in terms of decency,” says Ms. Meret.

“A lot of critics since [the Breivik killings] have asked us to change our political approach or our rhetoric. We don’t feel responsible in any way ... why should we?” says a DPP leader, Soren Espersen ahead of tomorrow's election. “Our party is blamed for everything. It is blamed for 9/11, for the London bombings. The Muhammad cartoon is our fault. But we have broad shoulders, and we can take it.”

DPP offices are in the basement of the Danish parliament that dominates central Copenhagen. Across the hall from Mr. Espersen, party leader Pia Kjaersgaard, whose folksy charm is a party asset, pops in and out. One is reminded of a quip comparing the DPP with churlish far-right groups: “So clean, you can bring them home.”

Espersen wears jeans and a polo shirt and has the appearance of a man who might coach soccer. An former journalist who became a DPP “spin doctor,” he speaks easily and casually. He disagrees with the “clash of civilizations” theory made popular by Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis that was often cited by Breivik. “That suggests Muslims have a civilization,” he says. “It is maybe a question of civilization and noncivilization. Ataturk said there was only one civilization and that was the Western world.”

Espersen goes on: “We are not against Muslims but against Islam taking political control of our society and canceling our democracy. Islam [represents] the same danger as communism or the Nazis.”

When asked for an example of a Muslim who espouses Islamic law (sharia) and who has made inroads into the Danish government, Espersen concedes that “Islam has made no inroads here.” But, he says, Muslims are beginning to influence Britain. “Why should we make the same mistakes?”

He draws a line between his beliefs and Breivik’s actions: “Breivik may agree with everything we agree with, but when you take the step of killing civilians, you are a terrorist. He is definitely a terrorist. But that has nothing to do with us,” he says.

‘Playing with dangerous forces’

Ida Auken disagrees. A young member of parliament whose Socialist People’s Party is on the other side of Espersen’s party in Thursday's poll, she says the DPP conflates all Muslims into caricatures of the Taliban or terrorists: “I won’t blame the People’s Party for Breivik,” she says, “but when they put a Muslim terrorist and an ordinary Muslim person in the same box, which is what they have been doing ... that is like putting the People’s Party and Breivik in the same box. We need to look at what brings us together. You are playing with dangerous forces when you talk about removing these people. It is a false world when you say Muslims and Christians can’t live together when they have for many years.”

In the Netherlands, radical politics dates to 2000 and an ex-Marxist, Pim Fortuyn, who formed his own party. Mr. Fortuyn came out of Rotterdam, one of Europe’s most ethnically mixed cities. New social tensions were appearing at the time. “Mounting problems, to do with pensions, health care, crime, taxes, appeared to be slipping from the grasp of nationally elected politicians,” wrote Ian Buruma in “Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam and the Limits of Tolerance.” “Years of officially promoted European idealism and denigration of national sentiment added to a growing sense of unease.”

Fortuyn ridiculed well-intentioned Dutch elites whom he attacked for coddling immigrants. He was murdered by an animal-rights activist during the 2002 national elections, but his party won 26 seats. The outcome laid bare a huge silent majority prepared to leave traditional political moorings. Wilders then formed his Freedom Party to capture this vote.

A favorite Freedom Party punching bag is Job Cohen, ex-mayor of Amsterdam and now opposition Labor Party chief. Mr. Cohen says he will sit down for tea with community leaders to work for peace in the community, an idea mercilessly if not viciously ridiculed by Wilders and his ilk.

“Very few Dutch historians will say we have seen anything remotely as political as this anti-elitism has become. It is a singular moment in Dutch history,” says political historian James Kennedy of the University of Amsterdam. “By Dutch standards, it is a no-holds-barred populism, in some cases gratuitously scornful of the establishment.”

The tone is heard from Martin Bosma, Wilders’s No. 2. Author of a recent book on the “pseudoelite,” Mr. Bosma castigates Dutch liberals who ignore Islam: “[T]hat perfectly matches your lifestyle: the unsprayed Toyota Prius, the little ecohouse in Tuscany, the golf weekend with friends in London. Islam is not at all a problem to you. Come on, after all, you are tolerant! And your kids? Do you expose them to your multicultural ideals, and are you standing at the gates of a black school every morning at half-nine? Is your Emma, Anne-Fleur, or Mees in a cozy classroom full of Muhammads and Alis?”

Muslims in Denmark or the Netherlands in fact have few public venues to defend themselves. “If Muslims were 45 percent of the population and a sharia party was one-third of the parliament, there might be a purpose for a Freedom Party. But it is not even close. I’m getting a little worried about the radical critique,” Professor Kennedy says.

In Copenhagen’s Arab Norreboro district, a place seen as “exotic” and worrisome by ordinary Danes, groceries sell dates, mango chutney, and saffron candy from Iran. A student couple is asked if Muslims will be an election issue on Sept. 15. “I think so,” says the man. “Our official policy is integration. But it is difficult to integrate them and stigmatize them at the same time.”

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