Rightwing surge means Danish People’s party becomes second biggest force – boosting David Cameron’s demand for EU reform, but piling misery on centre-left
Denmark’s first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, has conceded defeat and resigned as leader of her party after her coalition government lost the election to the centre-right opposition. Thorning-Schmidt told party members she will step down as prime minister and leader of the Social Democratic party on Friday after Denmark became the latest European nation to experience a surge in rightwing populism.
In her resignation speech, she said: “Every single day the responsibility has been mine. I stand by the decisions I have made … I am Denmark’s first female prime minister, but I won’t be the last.”
The strong showing for rightwing parties in the Nordic nation also delivers David Cameron a potentially vital ally in Europe for his bid to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU. Finland and Norway already have rightwing populists in government.
With more than 99% of the votes counted last night, the Danish People’s party emerged as the second biggest force in parliament, having nearly doubled its vote to 21%, up from 12% just four years ago. “What this suggests is that the Danish People’s party is becoming a real people’s party, for which we have fought for so many years,” its leader, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, told supporters.
The DPP was still coy on Thursday night about joining a centre-right coalition in power. “What is important is not whether we join a government, the important thing is that we have influence,” Dahl said.
But the party said it would back a centre-right coalition led by the liberal Venstre party of former prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, which had a disappointing night, taking third place with fewer than 20% of the vote – its lowest in quarter of a century – after promising tax breaks and tougher immigration controls.
Last night Rasmussen said he now had an opportunity to form a new government after Thorning-Schmidt’s concession. “Tonight we have been given an opportunity, but only an opportunity, to take leadership in Denmark,” he told supporters in parliament. “We take that upon ourselves and I take that upon myself.”
The DPP supported a centre-right government from 2001 to 2011 without joining it “and we had huge influence”, said DPP MEP Morten Messerschmidt.
Up until polling day, the incumbent centre-left coalition had hoped to score a spectacular comeback – Thorning-Schmidt’s government was trailing by 17 percentage points two years ago after unpopular reforms and broken campaign promises since taking office in 2011. On the eve of Thursday’s poll, the result was seen as too close to call, with barely a single percentage point separating the two blocs. But as the results came in on Thursday night, it became clear that Thorning-Schmidt’s gamble of trying to outdo the DPP on immigration had failed.
With her eyes firmly set on the election, Thorning-Schmidt launched a tough policy on asylum seekers, announcing that they must work to get social security benefits. Her Social Democrats and the opposition Liberals fought the election on who could sound toughest on immigration, while the DPP itself went further and called for the reinstatement of border controls between Germany and Sweden.
“We need to see the movements of voter groups to understand the whole picture, but it seems that everyone has tried to match the Danish People’s party’s policies so much that it has vindicated the party – and then the voters chose the real thing,” said political commentator Kasper Fogh Hansen.
Dahl, 45, co-founded the DPP 20 years ago, and is seen as more moderate in some respects than its former leader, Pia Kjærsgaard, from whom he took over in 2012, helping to broaden the party’s appeal. The DPP is the only member of the rightwing group of parties in the Danish parliament to argue for an expansion of the public sector and more spending on elderly care, helping it to take voters from both the Social Democrats and the Liberals. The party is staunchly Eurosceptic, although it does not argue for leaving the EU.
With four seats from the autonomous Danish nations of Greenland and Faroe Islands still to be reckoned, the final result appeared to give 91 seats for the centre-right bloc, placing it out of reach of the centre-left. The DPP was set to take 37 seats.
The victory for the right will be a boost to David Cameron, after Rasmussen said he would push for EU reforms against deeper integration. In what many saw as a concession to the DPP, the four parties of the rightwing bloc – Liberals, DPP, Conservatives and Liberal Alliance – last week announced their joint support for Cameron’s bid to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership of the EU, in particular with regard to welfare benefits for EU migrants.
“We will stand behind Great Britain and like-minded nations’ efforts to ensure that the EU doesn’t turn into a social union,” said the statement, titled Danish Welfare in Europe. “We want an EU where people can go wherever workers are needed, but we don’t want an EU where people go wherever the social benefits are good,” the statement said.
Thorning-Schmidt called the election three weeks ago after signs of an economic revival in the Nordic nation that was badly hit by the global financial crisis of 2008. She portrayed her four years as prime minister as being divided into two periods, the first of tough reforms followed by the reward of economic growth. Timid economic expansion of 1.7% is forecast for Denmark this year and 2% in 2016, allowing Thorning-Schmidt to promise a boost in welfare spending. But differences between the centre left and right blocs were so slim that voters’ attention often focused on their leaders’ styles rather than their policies.
“Especially from a financial market point of view, there’s no difference – both sides are in favour of our fixed exchange rate policy and conducting a responsible fiscal policy,” Danske Bank chief economist Steen Bocian told Reuters.
During her four years in power, Thorning-Schmidt joined forces with the centre right to pass controversial reforms. A deal to sell a stake in the energy company Dong to the US investment bank Goldman Sachs last year almost brought down her government after a junior coalition partner, the Socialist People’s party, walked out, resulting in the loss of six cabinet ministers. But she won international plaudits for her statesmanlike handling of terrorist shootings in Copenhagen in February.
The defeat for the centre left in Denmark marks a further setback for Social Democrats in Europe, who have had a miserable time in recent years, losing elections in the UK and Germany while facing disastrous poll ratings in France and Sweden. Sweden’s Social Democrats are now the only labour party to hold power in Scandinavia, a historical bastion of social democracy.
Sweden’s Social Democrats were so unhappy with their Danish colleagues’ position on immigration that the party broke with tradition and decided not to send top officials to Denmark for the elections, according to Swedish newspaper Expressen.