The writers of the famous Danish TV series “Borgen” couldn’t have concocted a more shocking episode than the one that unfolded during Thursday’s general elections.
After four years in office, the leader of the center-left government, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, faced a loose-knit group of rightist challengers, led by a former prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen. Both of them lost — leaving the leader of the far-right Danish People’s Party, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, as the election’s big winner and firmly in control of whatever new government emerges.
With 21 percent of the vote, up from 12 percent in 2011, the extreme right is now the second-largest party in Denmark. It’s entirely up to Mr. Thulesen Dahl whether he decides the D.P.P. is best served by joining a coalition government with Mr. Rasmussen’s center-right Liberals — or whether he prefers to stay in the wings, calling the shots. So far, Mr. Thulesen Dahl has declined to commit, saying only that he is after “influence” rather than “power.”
While the D.P.P. shares anti-immigrant and anti-Islam policies with other far-right European populist parties, it is in many respects a very different beast. By European standards the party is relatively moderate, and it has been running on a strong welfare platform, promising to protect those dependent on state subsidies. Leading members of the party like to portray it as a modern version of the Social Democrats who ran the country in the 20th century and who, according to the D.P.P., have now transformed themselves into technocrats out of touch with ordinary citizens.
This rhetoric has a strong appeal in a country where a significant part of the electorate outside the main urban centers feels left behind by globalization as Denmark becomes more and more multicultural. While growth and rising living standards have been felt in the cities, many in the countryside feel squeezed: Within the open economy they increasingly compete directly against workers in nonwelfare countries, exposing them to both the movement of production out of the country and to salary pressure from foreign immigrants “flooding into the country,” as the D.P.P. would put it. At the same time, a significant number of immigrants, including asylum seekers and their families, benefit from welfare subsidies, nourishing a fear among the most exposed “old Danes” that their own welfare will be eroded.
The D.P.P. has also successfully played the security card by drawing a direct line between Muslim immigrants, Islam as a creed and radical Islamism as the root of terrorism, domestically as well as internationally. While steering clear of outright racism and Islamophobia, the party has set a strongly anti-immigrant tone in the public debate and drawn most other political parties into a competition to see who can be toughest on immigration.
The D.P.P. wants to reintroduce border controls, limit family reunifications and cut back subsistence support given to asylum seekers. At the same time, it strongly opposes any attempt by the European Union to make arrangements for some sort of quota for the distribution of refugees coming to Europe.
Much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric in Denmark parallels that of other Western countries. But here the arguments are at least partly rooted in the logic of the welfare economy. The first step of the ladder into the labor market is very steep, demanding a high level of qualifications while offering generous salaries and good working conditions for everybody employed. Those who fall short of meeting these criteria are offered training and re-education in order to meet the standard of ever-more demanding and value-added jobs.
This system, often referred to as “Flexicurity,” works well for highly skilled workers, and the tax-subsidized free education and training programs pay off for them, too. But it fails in those segments of the population not capable of meeting the high standards — whether for social reasons or because of lack of language and other skills. While a worrying number of native Danes fall into this latter category, many see it as even more worrying that a disproportionately high number of immigrants and their descendants are stuck with similar problems.
All of this has provided fertile ground for the far right’s romanticized nationalist vision and the D.P.P.’s claim that it can restore Denmark to what it was before the world supposedly began to fall apart, including by “protecting” the country from further immigration, pushing back the European Union and raising welfare standards.
Denmark has not been taken by dark forces. But it has come under the spell of a nationalistic form of welfare populism and D.P.P. politicians who stage-manage the other right-wing parties.
Mr. Thulesen Dahl and his party are maneuvering carefully to avoid the fate of right-wing parties in other Nordic countries. In Norway, the D.P.P.’s sister party suffered heavy losses after becoming members of a right-wing coalition government. For a party that built its appeal by claiming to represent the “people” against the “system,” it is hard to wield power without being perceived as part of the establishment that voters rejected. Therefore, Mr. Thulesen Dahl wants to pull the strings without being seen to do so, just as his party did during the first decade of this century. This will prove far more difficult, however, now that the D.P.P. has moved to center stage in Danish politics.
Bo Lidegaard is editor in chief of the Danish daily Politiken and the author of Countrymen: The Untold Story of How Denmark’s Jews Escaped the Nazis.