Polls open in Danish election with tight race expected

Polls show center-right government needs a new ally to stay in power despite a strong economy and low unemployment.

Thorning-Schmidt 88 (photo credit: )
Thorning-Schmidt 88
(photo credit: )
Voting began Tuesday in Denmark's national election with polls showing the center-right government needing a new ally to stay in power despite a strong economy and low unemployment. To overcome a challenge from the leftist opposition, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmusssen will have to corral support from two parties with clashing views on immigration, according to a survey released on election day. One is the Danish People's Party, a nationalist, anti-immigration group that has supported Fogh Rasmussen's governing coalition of Liberals and Conservatives since 2001. The other is the centrist New Alliance led by Naser Khader, a Syrian-born Muslim immigrant and Karate black belt who once dreamed of becoming a Palestinian foreign minister. His party has emerged as a potential king-maker in the election because polls say the government is short of a majority, even with the backing of the Danish People's Party. "It could prove to be a very close election," Fogh Rasmussen, 54, told reporters. The prime minister called the early election three weeks ago, taking advantage of favorable approval ratings, buoyed by Denmark's strong economy. But the gap to the opposition led by the Social Democrats has narrowed since, and recent surveys have forecast a tight race. A poll published Tuesday in the Politiken newspaper showed the two-party government needs the support of both New Alliance and the Danish People's Party to have a majority in Parliament. Together those four parties would control 92 seats in the 179-seat chamber, according to the Nov. 10-12 survey by pollster Synovate Vilstrup, which was based on about 3,000 telephone interviews. The margin of error not was not revealed. Other recent surveys have shown a similar result. Khader whose New Alliance is expected to win about five seats said he will support the government rather than the leftist opposition. He added that his party would seek to pull the prime minister away from the influence of Danish People's Party leader Pia Kjaersgaard. Even though it holds no Cabinet seats, the populist group, known for its harsh rhetoric against Muslims, has been instrumental in shaping Denmark's tight immigration laws. The opposition claims the fact that the government could end up having to run its immigration policies by both the smaller allies will create confusion. "We don't know whether it's Pia Kjaersgaard who will decide asylum policy or Naser Khader," Social Democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt said in a TV debate Monday. Khader and Kjaersgaard were key figures during Denmark's most turbulent days since World War II: the wave of Muslim rioting last year against caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad printed in a Danish newspaper. Kjaersgaard's party said the crisis showed Islamic traditions clashed with the foundations of Danish society, such as the freedom of speech. Khader formed a network of moderate Muslims and made public appearances with Fogh Rasmussen, presenting himself as a counterbalance to extreme Islamists. Immigration is expected to remain one of the key issues for Denmark in the years ahead. Economists and Danish corporate leaders have said the Nordic country needs to open its doors to more workers from abroad to keep the economy growing. The jobless rate is at 3.1 percent, the lowest in three decades, and the economy grew last year at a robust 3.5 percent. If re-elected, Fogh Rasmussen said he would push for a US-style green card system to allow more skilled foreign workers to enter Denmark.