Helle Thorning-Schmidt may be about to become Denmark’s first female prime minister after ignoring the politics of sex in the Nordic region’s most unequal society for women.
The 44-year-old mother of two, once dubbed “Gucci Helle” by Danish media for her preference in handbags, is set to win tomorrow’s election when her Social Democrat-led bloc ends the decade-long rule of Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen’s Liberal-Conservative coalition, according to all polls published since the vote was announced on Aug. 26. An average of 110 polls compiled by newspaper Berlingske puts her bloc’s lead at 3.7 percentage points, with a margin of error of 0.7 point.
Denmark, which in 1924 became the world’s first democracy to have a woman cabinet minister, has since been overtaken by the other Nordic countries, where women are better represented in parliaments and company boards. Still, Thorning-Schmidt has avoided election issues that smack of gender politics, even dropping plans to seek better female board representation. Instead, she’s revamped her image and focused her campaign on funding Denmark’s welfare state without getting sucked into Europe’s debt crisis.
No ‘Dumb Blond’
“She’s in no way coming across as the dumb blond some people may have thought she was some years ago,” Klaus Kjoeller, associate professor of political communication at Copenhagen University, said in a phone interview. “She’s been playing a very fine balancing act where she needs to signal female values and still attract male voters. And she’s done it successfully.”
Thorning-Schmidt’s bloc would get 52.8 percent of the vote, compared with 47 percent for the government and its allies, according to a Gallup Denmark poll published today by Berlingske. The poll showed that 20.7 percent of voters are still undecided.
Denmark lags behind other Nordic countries, which occupy the top four spots for gender equality across the world. Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden led in the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap report. Denmark ranked seventh, just ahead of Lesotho. The U.S. was 19th, and the U.K. 15th.
Women executives and board members in Denmark earn as much as 21 percent less than their male counterparts, while women make up just 18.1 percent of Denmark’s corporate boards, compared with 44.2 percent in Norway, where the law sets a minimum of 40 percent.
At the same time, Denmark is Scandinavia’s worst-performing economy, as it tackles the fallout of a burst housing bubble that’s exacerbated a local banking crisis and sapped consumer demand. Gross domestic product will grow 1.25 percent this year, the central bank estimates. Sweden’s economy will expand 4.5 percent in 2011, while Norway’s mainland output will grow 3 percent, according to the two countries’ central banks. Even Iceland’s economy will outperform Denmark’s, growing 2.8 percent this year, its central bank forecasts.
Thorning-Schmidt, who lost the 2007 election to Rasmussen’s predecessor, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has spent the past four years shedding her Gucci moniker. Instead, the daughter-in-law of former U.K. Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock has appealed to crisis-weary voters with promises of more state-funded benefits such as better schooling and healthcare. Rasmussen has struggled to persuade Danes they should accept a cap on public expenditure to avoid building up an unsustainable debt mountain.
After announcing the election last month, Rasmussen evoked the specter of a deepening European fiscal crisis and warned voters they face a “clear choice: uncontrolled debt or sustainable welfare.” Thorning-Schmidt said the same day the state needs to deploy more public funds, arguing that “without growth we can’t pay down our debt, and without growth there’s no money for welfare.”
Denmark, which is home to the world’s highest tax burden at 48.2 percent of GDP in 2009, boasts one of the world’s highest levels of income equality. Meanwhile, gender equality has been overlooked as voters fret over the economy, allowing sexist trends to continue, authors Mette Bom and Nanna Kalinka Bjerke, who between them have published eight books on gender equality, wrote on the website of the Danish Centre for Information on Gender, Equality and Ethnicity last month.
“Campaigning on feminist issues is a completely lost cause” in this election, Bom and Bjerke wrote. Candidates are shunning the subject on the advice of spin doctors to avoid coming across as “hippies” or “bleeding heart humanists,” during an economic crisis, the two said.
Allowing sexism to fester can ultimately hurt an economy, some studies show. Gender equality is linked to economic growth, according to a 2005 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In developed economies, gender equality leads to higher fertility rates and helps counter aging populations and declining labor forces, according to the OECD.
Thorning-Schmidt’s program includes policies such as forcing banks to fund increased spending on schools, while other welfare services will be financed through higher taxes on items such as cigarettes and fatty foods. She rejects Rasmussen’s proposal to phase out early retirement in an effort to balance the budget.
The government’s program is “stronger from an economic point of view,” Steen Bocian, chief economist at Denmark’s biggest lender, Danske Bank A/S, said in a Sept. 3 note. Rasmussen’s policies are better financed and will do more to boost Denmark’s trade competitiveness, he said.
“It will be a very wrong medicine to introduce tax increases, and that’s what’s going to happen if we have a change in government,” Premier Rasmussen said today at a Copenhagen press meeting. That will prompt Danes to ask for raises, weakening the country’s global competitiveness and undermining sustainable growth and job creation, he said.
While sex equality has been absent from her campaign, Thorning-Schmidt has managed to appeal to crisis-weary voters with what Kjoeller calls “feminine” policies. That may help promote gender equality via the backdoor, he said.
“Even though gender issues are nowhere near the center of the political debate, the election is actually about female values versus male ones,” he said. Thorning-Schmidt “is the defender of the female core value of welfare while the prime minister is focusing on the much more masculine topic of balancing the economy.”
Thorning-Schmidt says Danes shouldn’t expect the fact that she’s female to play a part in her policies if she wins. Still, becoming Denmark’s first female prime minister will send a signal, she said.
“For young girls, whom I meet a lot when I travel around the country, it will be a big thing,” she said yesterday at a press briefing in Copenhagen. “It will really show them that there’s no post in Denmark that a girl can’t aspire to.”
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