Denmark swings left to reject populists

People rebel against austerity measures they fear could dismantle their cherished welfare model

Photo: EPA Opposition leader Mette Frederiksen (C) of the Danish Social Democrats speaks to the press after the election results are released, 05 June.

Denmark appeared set to become the third Nordic country in a year to form a leftist government as voters in 5 June's parliamentary election rebelled against austerity measures and dealt a blow to right-wing nationalists. Pledges by Social Democrats leader Mette Frederiksen, 41, heading the opposition centre-left bloc, to boost welfare spending after years of cuts and stick to a tougher stance on immigration, have gone down well with many Danes. She could become Denmark's youngest-ever prime minister as her party led in seats together with the rest of the left-wing opposition.

Following two decades of liberal economic reforms in Denmark, the vote marked a comeback for the Social Democrats party, which was the main architect behind the cradle-to-grave welfare state when it was the traditional party of power throughout the 20th century. The leftist opposition bloc got 96 seats against 79 for the ruling Liberal Party and others on the right, the final vote count showed. The nationalist Danish People's Party, which has supported Rasmussen's minority government, appeared to have lost its edge with most mainstream parties backing a tougher stance on immigration. Support for the party plummeted to 8.7% from 21.1% in the 2015 election. A new Danish far-right party, Stram Kurs, which means Hard Line, that wants Islam banned and hundreds of thousands of Muslims deported, did not gain any seats in parliament.

On 6 June, Rasmussen, who has been premier since 2015 and also served from 2009 to 2011, announced his government's resignation to Queen Margrethe.

The Nordic model has been the gold standard for welfare for many left-leaning politicians globally. But ageing populations have prompted Nordic governments to chip away at the cradle-to-grave welfare state. Many Danes, who like counterparts in other Nordic states pay some of the highest taxes in the world to underpin their welfare system, worry that further austerity will erode the universal healthcare, education and elderly services long seen as a given. Denmark, which is home to companies like container shipper Maersk, toymaker Lego and brewer Carlsberg, has seen economic growth above the European Union average in the past decade. In Finland, the Social Democrats won the April election, their first victory in 20 years, after campaigning on a platform of tax hikes to meet welfare costs. In neighbouring Sweden last year, the Social Democrats managed to cling to power after embracing policies more typical of the right, including tax cuts and labour market reforms.

Social Democrats leader Mette Frederiksen will attempt forming a minority one-party government, she said on 5 June, but may find it difficult to combine her own party's tougher immigration policies with the softer stance of most parties on the left. “This has been a welfare election, and voters' verdict has been completely clear. From now on, we make welfare the top priority in Denmark,” Frederiksen said in a speech after the final election result. The parties Frederiksen will rely on include the Socialist People's Party and the Social-Liberal Party. Both have campaigned for a more gentle immigration policy and greater efforts to combat climate change, echoing a surge in support for Europe's Greens at the European Union elections last month, surfing a global wave of climate activism.

Frederiksen “has workers' blood in her veins, is a fourth generation Social Democrat … and spent years preparing to take over the leadership (in 2015) of the party she knows so well,” daily Politiken wrote on Saturday. She has been a member of the Folketing, the parliament of Denmark, since 2001, and served in Helle Thorning-Schmidt's government as Minister of Employment from 2011 to 2014, and as Minister of Justice from 2014 to 2015. On 28 June 2015, she succeeded Thorning-Schmidt as leader of the Social Democrats. She studied administration and social science at Aalborg University. After graduating in 2000, she worked as a youth consultant for the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions. She is divorced, with two children.

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