Danish Voters Shrug Off Government Policies in Local Election

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrats suffered a smaller setback than initially thought in yesterday’s local elections as voters shrugged off the government’s unpopular economic policies.

The Social Democrats received 29.5 percent of votes, compared with 30.7 percent in 2009 municipal elections, Local Government Denmark said on its website. The opposition Liberal Party garnered 26.6 percent versus 24.8 percent four years ago.

Thorning-Schmidt had already braced for a loss and apologized to supporters at a rally last night after a nationwide exit poll by broadcaster DR showed her party would lose a quarter of its support from the last municipal election. The results also show voters are absolving Lars Loekke Rasmussen, head of the main opposition Liberal Party and a former prime minister, who last month apologized for spending too much on trips for an environmental organization partly funded by taxpayers.

Danes voted to elect candidates to 98 city councils and five regional boards, which govern most of the country’s welfare services, including schools, childcare, hospitals, sanitation, job support and public transportation.

The Social Democrats started sliding in national opinion polls soon after Thorning-Schmidt in 2011 became Denmark’s first female premier as she introduced polices that conflicted with the party’s traditional welfare values. The government, which includes the Socialist People’s Party and the Social Liberal Party, has raised the pension age, cut the corporate tax rate and lowered benefits for the unemployed and students. Surveys earlier this year gave the party its lowest support since 1898.

Poll Gains

Yesterday’s results and a recent poll signal it may be reversing the trend. For the first time since 2011, a national poll by Ritzau on Nov. 18 showed support for the government and its allies was higher than for Loekke Rasmussen’s opposition bloc. Thorning-Schmidt can call elections at any time before November 2015.

The local elections allowed “Social Democrats and socialists to strike closer to home with voters as the election highlights local and social issues,” Karina Kosiara-Pedersen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen, said. “They’re able to compensate for the negative impact on polls invoked by their economic policies.”

Loekke Rasmussen on Oct. 20 held a three-hour press conference to apologize for running up $190,000 in travel expenses, including limousine rides and first class airline tickets, as chairman of the Global Green Growth Institute. The non-governmental organization receives 90 million kroner ($16 million) annually from the Danish state. The debacle had made front-page news at the country’s biggest newspapers for weeks.

Hugely Important

The Social Democrats will continue to rule the largest cities Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense and Aalborg. The party may still lose 15 of its 49 mayors, according to a tally by newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The Liberal Party will govern 43 cities, up from 31 in the past four years, the newspaper reported. Mayors were selected for 91 municipalities after the vote and talks continue at 7 councils.

“Having more than 40 mayors and a strong local presence is hugely important to our identity and organization,” Magnus Heunicke, spokesman for the Social Democrat parliamentary group, said in an interview before yesterday’s vote. “It’s a very important election. It’s about who holds the keys to the Danish welfare society.”

The Socialist People’s Party, a minor partner in the governing coalition, suffered the biggest voter exodus in the elections as its support declined 8.9 percentage points to 5.6 percent. Some of those ballots went to the Red-Green Alliance, which backs the government. All opposition parties advanced, with the exception of the Conservative Party. The right-wing populist Danish People’s Party won 10.1 percent of votes and may get its first ever mayor in Hvidovre, a working class suburb of Copenhagen.

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