Analysis: How immigration shift was key to Social Democrats victory in Danish election

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Analysis: How immigration shift was key to Social Democrats victory in Danish election
Photo: Philip Davali / Ritzau Scanpix

The Social Democrats swept to victory in the Danish general election on Wednesday, in which the ruling Liberal party was ousted and the far right Danish People's Party suffered humiliating losses. But what was behind their success?


The likely future prime minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, embodies the new Danish Social Democratic model,
with a new-found focus on restrictive immigration while championing the welfare state.

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 just days before Wednesday's general election in which she ultimately emerged victorious.

Having made her debut in parliament at the age of 24, she served as employment minister and justice minister before taking the reins of Denmark's largest political party.

She succeeded Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the country's first female prime minister who was defeated by outgoing Liberal Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen in 2015.

The campaign ahead of Wednesday's election focused on the climate and the defence of the welfare state in a country that boasts almost full employment.

Frederiksen "has refused to make concrete promises, except when it comes to immigration," Politiken said. For that, her pledge is to keep tough curbs passed by the current government in place.

Under pressure from the far-right, Denmark has spent the last two decades cracking down on immigration all in the aim of protecting its prosperity and social cohesion.

Until recently these policies earned stern criticism from the left, including the largest party, the Social Democrats.

The party is led by Frederiksen, who herself has been a stern critic of Denmark's tough stance towards immigrants. 

In the early 2000s, she denounced Denmark's policy as one of the "toughest in Europe".

But eyeing power Frederiksen changed tack and the move paid off as her party topped the vote ahead of the Liberals.

"The Social Democrats realised that if they don't want to lose yet another election on the immigration question, they needed to emulate the policies of the Liberals and the Danish People's Party," University of Roskilde political scientist Flemming Juul Christiansen told AFP before the votes were counted.

Under her leadership, the Social Democrats last year proposed, as part of their crackdown on immigration, to send asylum seekers to special camps in North Africa while their requests are processed.

On Wednesday, as Frederiksen cast her vote in the Copenhagen suburb of Værløse, she told reporters her party's tougher immigration proposals were winning back supporters.

"Some Social Democrat voters who have been lost in the last few years, who didn't support our migration policy, are returning this time," she said.

In Denmark, long known for its progressive and liberal policies, all of the political parties -- with the exception of the far left -- are in agreement on keeping immigration numbers as low as possible.

With policies like no family reunification for partners under 24 years of age, the seizure of migrants' valuables, and doubled sentences for crimes committed in certain areas, the message has been unambiguous.

The appearance of of rightwing immigration policies in the programmes of mainstream parties including the Social Democrats spelled bad news for Denmark's now-established anti-immigrant group, the Danish People's Party (DF=, which formed in 1995.

DF, which has supported successive right-wing governments in exchange for tighter immigration policies for the last two decades, saw its support decimated from 21 percent in 2015 to 8.8 percent in Wednesday's general election.

Since 2001, the Danish People's Party has heavily influenced immigration and integration policy in the country of 5.6 million, where almost 10 percent of the population was born abroad.

With the adoption of restrictive immigration policies by almost all other parties, the Danish People's Party simply lost its appeal.

But despite the far-right party losing out in Wednesday's vote, its influence has had a huge impact in Denmark.

During it's time as kingmakers the far-right's ideology and terminology have come to be the norm.

"What we thought was extreme 10 years ago is now a common discourse in Denmark," says Kasper Møller Hansen, political science professor at the University of Copenhagen.

But adopting a classic rightwing stance on immigration doesn't mean the Social Democrats are willing to give up all of their principles.

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

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

READ ALSO: Danish election: New government for Denmark as left tops poll



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