Danish Leftists Turn on Migrants in Bid to Regain Power

  • Social Democrats lead in polls by opposing immigration
  • Party is considering its options ahead of the next election

Denmark’s reputation for hygge, trendy design and foraged cuisine has been sullied of late by its treatment of foreigners: A law allowing jewelry to be confiscated from asylum seekers got hammered by human rights groups, while a tightening of residency rules has placed a Danish astrophysicist and his American wife at risk of expulsion.

Far from criticizing the center-right government, the opposition Social Democrats have joined the anti-immigration chorus, boosting their support in the process.

Mette Frederiksen

Photographer: Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

With traditional left-wing parties hemorrhaging working class votes in France, the Netherlands or the U.K., the Danish transformation could be a harbinger of where other European progressives might be heading to save the continent’s once-dominant political ideology from irrelevance.

For an analysis on the rise of populism, click here.

Under new leader Mette Fredriksen, the party is now making nice with its former nationalist antagonist, the Danish People’s Party (DPP), and is positioning itself as a force that’s willing to address blue-collar concerns, even if it means treading over its traditional principles of egalitarianism, tolerance and openness.

The shift could disrupt Danish political alliances for the first time in almost two decades.

Updating Socialism

"The world changes," said Mogens Lykketoft, a former party leader who served as finance and foreign minister early on in the last decade. "The reason we’re doing better" is that "we’ve been better at understanding what people worry about" -- whether it’s climate change, globalization, social dumping or the impact of foreign workers on welfare, he said in an interview at his office in Copenhagen this month.

International criticism aside, the party’s if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them strategy has helped widen its lead in the opinion polls.

Since the 2015 elections, in which they were forced to relinquish power despite winning the most votes, the Social Democrats have intensified their overtures toward the DPP, which holds the balance of power in parliament and props up the current minority government of Lars Lokke Rasmussen.

Alliance Overtures

In February, Frederiksen held the first joint interview with the DPP’s Kristian Thulesen Dahl, Denmark’s version of Holland’s Geert Wilders or France’s Marine Le Pen. In it, the DPP leader noted a new level of dialog that would allow the parties to "cooperate at an entirely new level." Frederiksen praised her colleague’s "pragmatic" approach to problem solving.

There is now talk of a possible alliance between Denmark’s two largest parties after the next general election, which must take place by no later than June 2019.

"I hope they’ll reconsider and opt for our leader Mette Frederiksen as the next prime minister," Mattias Tesfaye, a Social Democrat lawmaker who speaks on immigration issues, said of the DPP. "In some areas we’re very far apart from the DPP, but so are other parties that may support us," said Tesfaye, a former bricklayer of Somali origin.

According to Lykketoft, the two parties may explore "opportunities for cooperation," rather than forge a ruling coalition during the next administration.

"Many DPP voters are really Social Democrats who simply have a more critical view on immigration," he said. Both parties oppose tax cuts and further increases to the retirement age, he said.

No Revolution

A government backed by both the Social Democrats and the DPP would be unprecedented but hardly revolutionary.

That’s because "both wings in Danish politics subscribe to the importance of fiscal discipline," Steen Bocian, chief economist at the Confederation of Danish Enterprise, said in a telephone interview in Copenhagen.

And while the krone’s peg to the euro isn’t under threat either, Denmark’s relationship with the EU could become an issue given the DPP’s euro-skepticism and the Social Democrats’ unswerving support for the soon-to-be 27 member bloc, according to Helge Pedersen, chief economist at Nordea Bank AB.

Still, it’s the defense of the country’s cherished welfare state -- and the perceived threats that foreign workers might pose to it -- that make a future compact between the two parties less surprising. And there may be a lesson in it for Jeremy Corbyn or other progressive leaders who are struggling to deal with voters’ frustration toward globalization and the free movement of people.

"From a historic perspective, there’s no doubt the DPP would never have grown as big as it is today had the Social Democrats responded sooner to this challenge," said Kasper Moller Hansen, a professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE