Denmark's election blunts far right's power

Helle Thorning-Schmidt is slated to become Denmark's first female prime minister after her left-wing coalition edged out government heavily influenced by Denmark's extreme right.

Jens Dresling/Polfoto/AP
The leader of the Social Democrats, Helle Thorning-Schmidt and husband Stephen Kinnock, son of former Chairman of the British Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, are cheered by party members, in Copenhagen, Denmark, Thursday evening, Sept. 15.

In Thursday's national election, Danish voters gave a small thumbs-up to a center-left coalition and to the nation's first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, ending a decade of government defined by tough policies on immigration and harsh rhetoric on Muslims.

“We made history today,” said an ebullient Ms. Thorning-Schmidt.

Last night, her Social Democratic party celebrated the successful end of a campaign that focused on Denmark’s recent economic drift and promised to tax banks, to increase the Danish workday by 12 minutes, and not to "jump on the austerity bandwagon” as other European states are doing, as Thorning-Schmidt put it.

Female politicians are not unusual in Scandinavia. But a new left coalition and a young female leader may change Denmark’s image as an increasingly closed and often Europhobic state that this summer tried to create separate border control stations, angering Germany and European Union officials.

Thorning-Schmidt lost a previous bid in 2007 but pressed on this year to overcome a tag of “inexperienced." The daughter-in-law of British Labour leader Neil Kinnock, she also weathered tabloid efforts to paint her as a pampered elite – she was often called “Gucci Helle” – who cared more for Europe than Denmark.

She fought back, depicting the election as being between progressives and the “bourgeoisie.” But some analysts said that Thursday's close election came down more to voting out old faces than affirming new ones.

Slim victory

While polls in August showed a possible blow-out for a so-called “Red coalition” led by Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democratic party – the victory margin last night was only five seats, in a 50.3 to 49.7 tally.

Thorning-Schmidt's four-party leftwing coalition scored 92 seats compared with 88 by a center-right grouping, which was often steered by the powerful influence of the far-right anti-Islam and anti-EU Danish People’s Party (DPP), known as “kingmakers” in a coalition led by outgoing Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen.

"Tonight I hand over the keys to the state ministry, but dear Helle Thorning-Schmidt, look well after them, they are only yours to borrow," said Mr. Rasmussen in a concession speech.

How Thorning-Schmidt will balance a sprawling center to far-left coalition is a matter of interest in coming days. Her party actually lost seats from 2007, as did her main backer, the Socialist People’s Party. But the losses were compensated by increases in the far-left Red Green Alliance and the center-left Social Liberals.

'Referendum' on the right

Still, after a decade that saw some 49 new immigration policies in Denmark, a media-fed culture war over Muslims, and a knock-on effect in the aftermath of mass killings in Norway by a far-right extremist, Danes were ready for a change, most analysts agreed.

Pia Kjaersgaard, the charismatic and folksy leader of the far-right DPP, which engineered a “24 year” rule forbidding families with non-Dane spouses underage 24 to establish residency, said before the vote that the election seemed a “referendum” on her ideas.

In the past year, the DPP has quietly made immigration and Islam its No. 2 issue, looking instead to improve pensions and the economy in a nation saturated with populist politics since before 9/11. The DPP clocked in at just over 12 percent, down 1.5 points.

Still, it is unlikely any leftist Danish coalition will try to reverse a decade of anti-foreigner politics.

“It is axiomatic now that if any party, left or right, doesn’t talk tough on Muslims and non-Danes, it will lose voters,” says a Scandinavian diplomat based in Copenhagen. In recent months the head of the Socialist People’s Party lashed out at an Islamic leader in an evident attempt to create such bona fides.

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