Denmark has elected its first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, in a close general election. Thorning-Schmidt’s victory removes a center-right coalition from power after ten years in which Denmark adopted some of the toughest immigration controls in Europe.
As of midnight Thursday in Copenhagen, the red bloc, an alliance led by Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democratic party, had won 89 seats in the 179-seat Parliament and was likely to win another three. The blue bloc of Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen had won 86 seats and was likely to win one more. He has conceded the election to Thorning-Schmidt.
Issues of government spending and taxes dominated the election. Denmark has a population of 5.5 million and, according to the New York Times, its economy is the worst-performing in Scandinavia, with this year’s economic growth projected to be 1.25 percent. Denmark’s deficit is predicted to rise to 4.6 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, above the European average. The outgoing center-right coalition, led by Rasmussen, has called for stringent controls on public finances, no tax increases that might hinder already weak economic growth and — echoing the debates about the deficit and government spending in the US — preventing “uncontrolled debt.”
Thorning-Schmidt had campaigned on promises of raising taxes on Denmark’s banks and its wealthier citizens to finance education and hospitals and to expand the country’s welfare system — already one of the most generous in Europe — by $4 billion. She has also called for the addition of twelve minutes to the average Danish work day.
But she has said she will maintain the new controls on immigrants. About 200,000 Muslims, most asylum seekers, reside in Denmark; Muslims make up about 4 percent of the population and are the country’s largest non-Christian group. The far-right — “europhobic, Muslim-baiting,” as the Guardian puts it — Danish People’s Party (DPP) has made its anti-immigration stance mainstream, with polls showing support for harsher restrictions on immigrants. The DPP was the third-largest bloc in the previous Parliament and will now become the opposition party; it had led a push to withdraw Denmark from the “Schengen group of countries,” which have allowed for travel without internal border controls within 25 European nations for Europeans.
But Denmark did not withdraw from the Schengen agreement and Thoring-Schmidt has won a close contest. As the Guardian says,
The social democratic win bucked the trend of politics in Europe where the centre-left has been in the doldrums, unable to capitalise on the fallout from the 2008 financial and economic crisis and stagnation in the EU while also failing to come up with attractive policies on other potent issues such as immigration and Islam.
European centre-left leaders claimed to detect a shift in the public mood ahead of elections in France and Italy next year.
As Thorning-Schmidt says, “We’ve written history today.” Could her victory signal a small but significant shift in European politics?
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