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Denmark’s left wins election by adopting right-wing rhetoric

  • Elis Gjevori
  • 6 Jun 2019

As Europe lurches to the right, policies that were once rejected by the left are being incorporated into manifestos to garner votes.

Opposition leader Mette Frederiksen of the Danish Social Democrats waits for the election results at Christiansborg Castle in Copenhagen, Denmark on June 5, 2019. Opposition leader Mette Frederiksen of the Danish Social Democrats waits for the election results at Christiansborg Castle in Copenhagen, Denmark on June 5, 2019. ( AP )

The left-leaning bloc led by the Danish Social Democratic's Mette Frederiksen has won elections based on a platform of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. 

Sabina Yousef a Danish activist, who last year led the campaign to stop Denmark’s ban of the niqab - the face veil some Muslim women wear due to religious conviction- is pessimistic about the political climate in Denmark.

“One would think that being racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic would damage a political career, yet in this year’s elections we have seen people launch a political career based on exactly that,” Yousef told TRT World.

Support for the far-right Danish People’s Party (DP) has more than halved from a 2015 high of 21 percent of the vote to only 8.7 percent.

The New Right party, which was founded in 2015, and considers DP’s policies too lenient won four seats on a platform calling for a complete ban on the headscarf and the mass deportation of migrants.

It will come as bittersweet relief for minorities that parties on the far-right have not done as well as was initially expected. Both parties on the right and left have adopted policies belonging to what was once considered the far-right but is now mainstream.

“Without any hesitation, we have seen politicians compete, on who can lead the harshest policies...since the difference between the left and the right wings are becoming more and more indistinguishable,” said Yousef.

In an interview in 2017, the recently elected left-leaning Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen outlined her wish to close down Muslim schools that teach some 5,000 students.

“We want to close all Muslim free schools,” said Frederiksen adding that the closure of faith schools will only apply to Muslims and not to Jewish or Christian schools. She went on to say: "We must be honest and say that for many years, the Jewish minority has not caused any problems. But we now have many challenges with a large Muslim minority.”

Lawyers in Denmark have pointed out that it could be unconstitutional to target the schools of one particular religious group while allowing other faith-based schools to stay open. However, that doesn’t seem to have deterred Denmark's recently-elected Frederiksen who believes there is an "actual cultural freedom struggle" in Denmark.

Observers have celebrated the decline of the far-right vote, however, underlying this achievement is the role the far-right has played in transforming the rules of politics with political rhetoric that has widely been seen as inflammatory.

The emergence of the Danish Peoples’ Party and it's meteoric rise since 1995 impacted mainstream politics gradually.

“For the past two decades, they've slowly been gaining voters that would traditionally vote for Social Democrats, a historically labour-oriented/left-centre party,” Dr Amani Hassani, a Danish sociologist, told TRT World.

“They've been able to do this mainly based on their welfare ideas that they coupled with ethno-nationalistic politics that has appealed to a large segment of the Danish population,” added Hassani.

The key issues of these elections were the country’s highly prized welfare system, immigration, and climate change.

As Denmark struggles to deal with an increasingly ageing population and with its welfare system facing austerity, immigrants have been scapegoated as adding to the problem.

The left-leaning Social Democratic party presented immigrants as a threat to the welfare system. Whereas Muslim communities were portrayed as a threat to Denmark’s liberal values by the left, for the right, they were presented as a threat to traditional Danish identity.

“What we see in this election is that the Social Democrats have been able to do exactly what the Danish People's Party have been doing to gain popularity, they've focused on restrictive immigration policies simultaneously with Danish welfare,” said Hassani.

In 2018, Denmark adopted some of the most draconian migration and integration policies in Europe. The legislation is known as the 'ghetto package' targeted 25 neighbourhoods around Denmark that the government deemed to be vulnerable, and which were also composed of a significant number of migrants.

As part of the package, children as young as one are sent to government-run centres for up 25 hours per week to learn 'Danish values'. Crimes committed in these designated areas face heavier penalties than those committed outside.

Parents who take their children for long periods of time to their country of origin could face hefty fines or even a jail sentence. Migrant communities will also face forced evictions and houses will be razed in a bid to socially engineer integration.

The process of ‘otherising’ or targeting migrant communities is far from being a recent phenomenon and stretches back to the beginning of the century, although the language of assimilation is now couched with words like integration.

Speaking to TRT World, Richard McNeil-Willson, a researcher on counterterrorism and political extremism at the University of Exeter said: “We have seen a shift amongst Denmark’s main parties, with language and policies becoming increasingly hostile against immigration and minorities – particularly Islam.

“Since the 2001 General Election in Denmark, there has since been a long-term trend within Danish national politics, with national debate coalescing around issues of identity and values – immigration, integration and security.”

Political parties have adapted to survive.

The Social Democratic party, according to McNeil-Willson, has reframed “the debate about immigration and minorities – particularly Islam – in more social democratic language, for instance: Islam framed as a threat to gender equality in Denmark; or immigration framed as a threat to the state’s welfare system".

This has allowed the main leftist party in Denmark to remain relevant and appeal to voters that may have thought it was too soft in the past on immigration. Denmark's elections also show that the political scene has become fragmented in particular on the right as parties compete with extreme approaches to social issues.

Nor is Denmark very instructive about the wider European political context, McNeil-Wilson said.

“Denmark represents, in some senses, a special case within the context of European right-wing populism because traditional Left and Right divisions don’t apply very well in the country.”

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