Her chances of a second term were once written off, but now Helle Thorning-Schmidt is in a race that's too close to call. Photo: Asger Ladefoged/Scanpix
Like the protagonist of Denmark's hit TV show 'Borgen', Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt is a pragmatic centrist who learned her political lines the hard way.
Since calling elections last month, the Social Democratic leader has succeeded in clawing back lost support for her centre-left coalition ahead of Thursday's parliamentary election, which pundits describe as too tough to call.
Best known abroad for taking a “selfie” with British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela's memorial service in December 2013, the tall, elegant 48-year-old blonde became Denmark's first female prime minister in 2011.
She ousted a right-wing coalition that had steered the country into a housing boom and bust, triggering years of sluggish growth.
Lacking the charisma of some of her rivals, Thorning-Schmidt saw her support plummet as she implemented corporate tax cuts and scaled back parts of a massive welfare state in a country which has both Europe's highest taxes and the world's highest levels of household debt.
Straight to prime minister job
In 2005, aged just 38 and with only a few months in parliament under her belt, the former member of the European parliament became the first woman to rule the Social Democrats, pulling a disunited party back together after an election defeat.
“She is… very good at one liners, very good at making short statements and this is of course an advantage in an election campaign,” Peter Nedergaard, political science professor at the University of Copenhagen told AFP.
Her marriage to British lawmaker Stephen Kinnock, whom she met at the Bruges College of Europe in 1993, makes her the daughter-in-law of former British Labour Party leader and longtime European Commissioner Neil Kinnock.
See also: PM's husband slams 'do nothing' Obama
Born in the working-class Copenhagen suburb of Ishøj to an office manager mother and economics professor father, Thorning-Schmidt likes to project a down-to-earth image to match the egalitarian policies her country is known for.
The mother-of-two was photographed by paparazzi shovelling snow outside her home in one of Copenhagen's most upscale neighbourhoods, and her husband — who was elected to the British parliament in last month's general election — told a journalist he thinks “she's the only prime minister who does all her own washing”.
Nicknamed 'Gucci Helle'
However, her expensive tastes — earning her the nickname “Gucci Helle” — at first made it difficult for the party base to accept her, and she and her husband have been questioned, and cleared, of claiming excessive tax allowances which dealt a heavy blow to her popularity among voters.
“She has taken her party to the right policy-wise, her leadership has been a shift for the Social Democrats,” said Rune Stubager, political science professor at Aarhus University.
For one coalition partner, the Socialist People's Party, the sale of a stake in state-controlled energy group DONG to a US investment bank was too much and the party left the coalition in January.
Her combative approach in the early stages of the campaign with tough talk on immigration as well as Denmark's improving economic outlook have helped the ruling coalition stage a comeback in recent weeks.
Thorning-Schmidt has also benefitted from a series of low-level expenses scandals that have harmed the image of opposition leader Lars Løkke Rasmussen.