Danes go to the polls in crucial election as political landscape shifts

Denmark votes in a general election on Wednesday, with the opposition Social Democrats predicted to return to power after adopting the right wing's long-standing restrictive stance on immigration.

Danes go to the polls in crucial election as political landscape shifts
People queue to vote at Odense City Hall on the morning of June 5th. Photo: Tim K. Jensen / Ritzau Scanpix

Opinion polls put the opposition centre-left Social Democrats, led by Mette Frederiksen, at 27.2 percent, a comfortable lead of almost 10 percentage points ahead of Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen's ruling Liberal Party, which has been in power for 14 of the last 18 years.

“Many voters want change. In particular, the 'millennials', who can vote for the first time,” Flemming Juul Christiansen, a political scientist at Roskilde University, told AFP.

Like Gustaf Lindegaard who is voting for the first time, 57 percent of Danes think the next government should prioritise climate change, according to a Gallup poll published in February. For those aged between 18 and 35, the figure was 69 percent.

“I really think global warming is the most important issue,” Lindegaard said.

**REMINDER: Join The Local from 8pm on Wednesday to follow the results of the Danish general election LIVE**



New priorities

The Socialist People's Party, heavily focused on environmental issues, is also expected to see a surge in its numbers, with opinion polls suggesting it could take 8.3 percent of votes, almost double its 2015 score.

If the Social Democrats emerge victorious, they intend to form a minority government — common in Denmark's proportional representation system — relying on the support of the left or the right on a case-by-case basis to pass legislation.

As Denmark enjoys robust growth, almost full employment and strong public finances, the party has focused its campaign on climate issues and the defence of the welfare state, promising to reverse budget cuts to education and healthcare.

Analysts believe the Social Democrats would likely collaborate with the right on immigration and the left on other matters in the Scandinavian country, which is a member of the European Union but not the eurozone.

However, with a splintered political landscape featuring an abundance of political parties, the party could also find it necessary to forge long-term alliances to ensure stability. 

Immigration backdrop

While the Liberal Party is expected to lose its grip on power, its performance is projected to match that of the 2015 election.

On the eve of the election Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen announced a dramatic shift for the Liberals by declaring his priority was now to form a government with traditional rivals the Social Democrats.

But opinion polls indicate the far-right Danish People's Party, which has informally supported Rasmussen's minority government, could lose almost half its support, shrinking to 10.7 percent.

For the last two decades the anti-immigrant party has supported successive right-wing governments in exchange for the implementation of their restrictive immigration policies.

But as those policies have now been broadly adopted by almost all Danish parties, the Danish People's Party has lost its unique appeal with voters.

The Social Democrats for instance last year announced their own proposal to crack down on immigration, including sending asylum seekers to North African camps while their requests are being processed.

“Mette Frederiksen has loved the Danish People's Party to death with her tough line on foreigners,” Anja Westphal, an analyst at Denmark's public broadcaster DR, told AFP.

“We stand by our firm and realistic policy when it comes to immigration. We believe that Denmark and other countries have a responsibility to help people in need but there is a limit to the numbers we can take in,” said Nicolai Wammen, political spokesman for the Social Democrats.

The Danish People's Party's slide has in part benefitted the Social Democrats, but it also coincides with the emergence of two more extreme far-right parties, New Right and the anti-Muslim Hard Line.

The Danish parliament, the Folketing, has 179 seats, four of which represent the autonomous territories of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which have two seats each.

To be eligible for a seat, a party must win at least two percent of votes.

Voter turnout is traditionally high in Denmark. In 2015, 85.9 percent of voters cast their ballots.

Polls will be open from 8 am to 8 pm (0600 to 1800 GMT), with some 4.2 million people eligible to vote.

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Power shifts in Denmark with the giving of gifts

Transfer of power between governments can be associated with antagonism, ill feeling and tension. In Denmark, it is accompanied by the exchange of gifts.

Power shifts in Denmark with the giving of gifts
Mette Frederiksen hands Lars Løkke Rasmussen his new cycling jersey. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen / Ritzau Scanpix

The quirky tradition was continued on Thursday as Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen took over from predecessor Lars Løkke Rasmussen as head of government.

Tradition in Danish politics dictates that all outgoing ministers, including the prime minister, exchange gifts with their successors on the day portfolios officially change hands.

The gifts, often referred to in Danish as drillegaver (‘teasing gifts’), are normally chosen with an element of humour in mind, while not forgetting to reference political opposition.

As the keys to the PM’s office were exchanged at Christiansborg Palace, the seat of parliament on Thursday, Rasmussen handed Frederiksen a pair of gloves and blue trousers from a set of overalls.

“I’m now handing over a Denmark in top form. And that must be looked after. I know will you do that, Mette,” Rasmussen said.

“One of the keys to achieving that is for us Danes to pull on our working gear,” he added.

In response, Frederiksen gifted Rasmussen, known for his enthusiasm for bicycle racing, a polka-dotted cycling jersey, making reference to his tendency to “break away from the pack” during the election campaign.

“I hope you will be spending a lot more time cycling in future,” Frederiksen joked as she gave her predecessor the jersey.

Also noting that she had probably not seen the last of the Liberal (Venstre) party leader in politics, the new PM had warm words of tribute for Rasmussen, who has served two separate terms as the head of Denmark’s government, from 2009-11 and 2015-19.

She thanked him for a being a decent opponent and for “everything you have done for Denmark”.

Rasmussen, who was not short of joking remarks himself, said he “had a habit of handing over the keys to a Social Democrat”.

After losing the 2011 election, he gave then-Social Democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt his government’s budget repurposed as a handbag, while Thorning-Schmidt gave Rasmussen a bus ticket.

Roles were reversed in 2015, when Rasmussen, having regained power, gave Thorning-Schmidt a selfie stick and received festival tickets in return.

The Danish tradition of giving gifts while handing over power is a modern one, having gradually emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Transition of power used to be very formal,” DR’s political commentator Bent Stuckert told Politiken in 2011. That is evidenced by the below video, which shows Anker Jørgensen making way for Poul Hartling in 1973.

The 2019 version, coming at the end of a long negotiation period to form government, continued Denmark’s overtly friendly approach to handing over the keys to power.

READ ALSO: Here is Denmark's new Social Democrat government