Courtesy Reuters

In Copenhagen, an Election Turns Denmark to the Left

After Norway's Massacre, Could Europe be Changing its Tone on Immigration?

Although Tina Jensen and Nadine Hammad kept interrupting each other, they agreed on one thing: They wanted a new government. The two women were talking last Thursday outside the Blagard School in Copenhagen, where they had both come to vote in Denmark's national election. From where they stood, the public school that both their children attend hardly appeared different from any other Danish elementary school: red walls, a Danish flag flapping in the wind. But the Blagard School stands apart, as it claims one of the highest percentages of students with immigrant backgrounds -- around 70 percent -- in all of Copenhagen.

Both Jensen, a 52-year-old teacher, and Hammad, a 35-year-old university student wearing a traditional headscarf (she is part of Denmark's four percent Muslim minority), said they were voting for the Red-Green Alliance, a coalition on the far left of Danish politics. Theirs would also be a protest vote against Pia Kjaersgaard's Danish People's Party (DPP), the anti-immigrant faction of Copenhagen politics that has long been part of Denmark's center-right ruling coalition. "We want our vote to make a real difference on immigration," Hammad said. Jensen concurred. And as the votes were counted later that night, the women's wishes were granted.

Like Jensen and Hammad, Denmark was ready for a political change. On Thursday, voter turnout topped 88 percent, a historic high. For the first time since its founding in 1995 as a right-wing, populist, anti-immigration party, the DPP lost ground. Meanwhile, the leftist politicians gained votes, ushering in Denmark's first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a Social Democrat who will preside over the country's first center-left government in a decade.

Although Denmark is a staunchly liberal state -- it offers free universal health care, free university education, and, in 1989, became the first country in the world to legalize civil union between same-sex couples -- Copenhagen has long pushed the most stringent immigration policy of the 27 member states of the European Union. For example, since 2001, the government has tightened at least 20 immigration and asylum laws, leaving Danish citizens who marry foreigners generally unable to bring their spouses into the country (unless they both speak Danish and can prove that they have a stronger affiliation to Denmark than to any other country). Numbers are also telling. Back in 2001, more than 6,200 refugees were given asylum, whereas that number dropped to just less than 1,400 in 2009. Most recently, the country established its own border control, flouting the founding principle of the Schengen agreement, which created free travel within 25 European countries.

Thursday's referendum was undoubtedly a setback for the DPP and its right-wing policies. The tack in voter sentiment could change the future of Danish anti-immigration and asylum laws. 

There are several possible causes behind the surprising change in Denmark's political atmosphere. Thursday's referendum was the first national election in Europe following the July massacre in Norway, in which the right-wing fanatic Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people. It is telling that in a local election in Norway last week, the right-wing Progress Party, of which Breivik had been a member, lost six percent of its votes, more than any other party. "Since late July, we have witnessed a striking effect from the Utoya tragedy in the Scandinavian countries, an association in the debate between the rhetoric of the killer Anders Breivik and that of some radical anti-immigration parties," says Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy. "This may have provoked some people who previously voted for DPP to reconsider if the party's arguments are really as civilized as they have come to be perceived until now." It is all the more telling that a poll by the Gallup Institute showed that many Danish voters shifted their alliance from the DPP to the Social Democrats.

In previous elections, the immigration issue dominated the debate, rewarding the DPP. Now, however, another issue -- the economy, on which the DPP has vaguely defined policies -- has become more important. The discredited right wing will now have a tougher time pushing its key issues to the top of the agenda, as getting the fundamentals of the economy right will trump all else for the foreseeable future. 

Finally, Danish voters seem to have simply grown tired of the constant tightening of immigration laws. According to Johannes Andersen, associate professor at Aalborg University who researches voter behavior, there is a growing feeling that Copenhagen's immigration laws have now reached a level that is sufficiently strict, if not too much so. A 2009 survey by the think tank CEPOS showed that the majority of the country supporting tighter rules for immigrants had slipped away. And after ten years with the DPP as the government's coalition partner, there is not much more to tighten without violating international conventions.

For her part, Thorning-Schmidt has said she intends to hold on to Denmark's current immigration politics, but that could be a hard promise to keep. Although the new center-left coalition will now hold a plurality of seats in Denmark's parliament, they actually lost one seat. In fact, the real winners of the election were the Red-Green Alliance and the Social Liberals, who campaigned on looser immigration and asylum laws. A crucial battle will be changing the controversial "24 year" rule, which leaves Danish citizens who marry foreigners generally unable to bring their spouses into the country if they are younger than 24 years old.

If the political tide in Denmark is turning, is it possible that it will turn the rest of the continent as well? Since the 1980s, Denmark has been a trailblazer in European immigration and asylum politics. In the past ten years, Copenhagen, and especially the DPP, have been inspirations for right-wing populist parties across Europe. Other anti-immigrant and anti-EU parties, such as the Swedish Democrats, the Dutch Party for Freedom, and the True Fins, all take cues from Denmark and the DPP.

Indeed, in many ways, then, Denmark's election was a test case for the European far right, suggesting that the European electorate might be preparing to halt anti-immigration populism. Europe's other right-wing parties will surely take note and temper their rhetoric, if not their policies. However, in most other countries, the sister parties are not yet as big or as successful as the DPP, so they may still have some room to grow. Take, for example, the Dutch prime minister's comments this week that his country's immigration laws will become "more selective and more restrictive." Yet the Danish election shows that there is a limit to what kind of political potential these small nationalistic parties actually have. Denmark has reached a limit, and others will one day, too.

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