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

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?

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

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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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