Denmark’s center-left Social Democrats came in first in the country’s June 5 parliamentary elections—the third Nordic country where voters recently backed a left-leaning party in a Europe otherwise marked by social democracy’s decline.
Wednesday’s outcome broke with the past two decades of Danish politics. Social Democrats leader Mette Frederiksen, 41, is set to become the country’s youngest-ever prime minister and the second woman to hold the job. Her coalition’s success—91 of the parliament’s 179 seats—upended a political landscape long dominated by the right. And on the heels of the European Parliament elections, in which populist, xenophobic parties saw important gains in France, Hungary, Italy, and Poland, the far-right Danish People’s Party saw its votes cut by more than half, after an unprecedented score in 2015.
But this week’s vote says less about the far right’s demise than about its steady creep into the mainstream. In something of a paradox, the center left returned to the scene only by lurching to the right. The Social Democrats, faced with waning support in the past two decades, have parroted the Danish People’s Party on immigration, backing hard-line policies they characterize as necessary to save the country’s prized welfare state.
Social-democratic parties across Europe have opted for that strategy, but in Denmark the dynamic is particularly pronounced. “While other social-democratic parties have adopted tougher immigration laws in times of ‘crisis’ and used anti-immigration and Islamophobic language, no party has so openly ran on a nativist and welfare-chauvinist agenda as the Danish Social Democrats,” Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who specializes on populism, said by e-mail.
Take, for example, the so-called “ghetto package,” a series of policies aimed at improving integration and reducing crime in low-income areas that the state categorizes as “ghettos” because, among other criteria, more than half of their residents are of “non-Western” background. The package, introduced by the Danish People’s Party but backed by the Social Democrats, included measures ethnic minorities consider discriminatory: One law doubles punishments for crimes committed in “ghettos”; another requires “ghetto children” from age 1 to 6, the age when public education is required for the general population, to attend mandatory courses in Danish values and traditions, as well as language courses. Families that refuse to comply risk being stripped of government benefits.
The “ghetto package” is among the slew of policies targeting immigrants—particularly Muslims—that Denmark has embraced in the past few years, often with the Social Democrats’ support. These include a 2016 law that allows authorities to seize cash and valuables from asylum-seekers ostensibly to help the state finance their benefits, or a 2018 ban on the burqa—the full-face veil worn by only about 200 Muslim women nationwide. A law making handshakes a mandatory requirement for citizenship followed, clearly targeting Muslims who refuse to shake hands with the opposite sex. Plans are underway to isolate foreigners who have criminal records and served their sentences—asylum-seekers among them—on a far-off island, currently home to a center for researching highly communicable animal diseases. In 2005, the government required UN resettlement to be based on “integration potential,” and in 2016 it withdrew from the UN resettlement program entirely, with the Social Democrats’ support.
“The Social Democrats have made it very clear: They realize they’ve lost elections since the late 1990s by being outflanked by the right on immigration,” Rune Stubager, a political scientist at Aarhus University, told me. “They knew they’d have to change their position on the issue to win.”
The Social Democrats’ rightward shift has earned it the moniker “Danish People’s Party lite” among some Danes, disillusioned with what they see as the party’s betrayal of its progressive ideals. “There’s no question: They saw that, without anti-Islam as a central part of their platform, they have no chance of success,” Naveed Baig, an imam and the vice-chair of the Islamic-Christian Study Center in Copenhagen, told me, noting that Islam and immigration have become synonymous in current political debates. The climate has become so toxic, he said, that some Muslim families have considered leaving Denmark altogether.
Natasha Al-Hariri, a lawyer and minority-rights advocate, agreed. “It’s disturbing to see Frederiksen in the prime-minister spot,” she said. “She’ll adopt whatever position gets the most votes, even if that means aligning with the far right. When is enough enough?”
The Social Democrats say they’ll stick to their new line on immigration, which they describe as critical to maintaining Denmark’s welfare state, one of the most robust in Europe. “We need to have enough money and enough room in our country, to take care of our citizens,” Nanna Grave Poulsen, a party chairwoman, told me. “All of our immigration policies need to be put in the context of the welfare issue.”
But the number of migrants and asylum-seekers Denmark has admitted has actually declined in recent years, and its overall acceptance rate has been far below the EU average. The country’s economy is strong, and research indicates that strains to the welfare state stem from an aging population, not migrants, refugees, or Danes of “non-Western background.”
The mainstreaming of far-right views—and anti-immigrant rhetoric’s ability to capture the national attention—is evident in the emergence of two new parties to the right of the Danish People’s Party: the Hard Line and the New Right, the latter of which managed to enter parliament, just exceeding the 2 percent threshold. In the months leading up to the elections, the media fixated on Hard Line leader Rasmus Paludan, a lawyer who campaigned on a platform to deport all Danish Muslims. Paludan sparked riots in April when he threw the Quran in the air and let it hit the ground during a rally in a multicultural neighborhood in the capital. Since then, the state has spent around $6 million protecting him at his campaign rallies, during which he burns the Quran or stuffs it with bacon.
Although Paludan’s Hard Line didn’t end up entering the parliament, the media’s focus on his provocations propelled him to national significance. Before the April riots, he had garnered only around 5,000 of the 20,000 signatures necessary to present his candidacy; in the days that followed, he managed to multiply his following and enter the race.
The Hard Line and New Right have both solidified the Danish People’s Party’s position as a mainstream party and undermined its appeal. “It’s terrifying that these Nazis, knocking on Parliament’s door, make the Danish People’s Party look ‘meh,’” Al-Hariri said. “But at the same time, it would be incorrect to say it’s not part of the establishment.”
“All the focus on Paludan squeezed the Danish People’s Party, which suddenly seemed moderate on immigration,” Karina Kosaria-Pedersen, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen, told me. Electorally speaking, the party’s transformation—from the margins to the mainstream—didn’t work in its favor. Its cooperation with major parties and success in dictating immigration policies made it look “more like the elite it had claimed to challenge,” she said. That new dynamic, plus an ongoing scandal over allegations of misused EU funds, have curbed the party’s steady ascent.
The Social Democrats, the clear winners of this political climate, now have to determine just how they will govern. The party has stood fast on its immigration policies. “We don’t want to lose the voters we’ve managed to take away from the far right,” Poulsen, the party chairwoman, told me. But it has also moved to the left on welfare and the environment, two critical issues for Danes. Accordingly, Prime Minister–elect Frederiksen rejected a proposal from the outgoing prime minister to enter a “grand coalition” with his conservative Liberals party, which won 75 seats. Instead, Frederiksen intends to form a minority government, working with parties across the spectrum on an ad hoc, issue-specific basis.
That won’t be easy. “She will be at odds with the left-wing parties, who want her to make concessions on immigration,” Stubager, the political scientist, said. She’s also likely to clash with conservative parties, who seek concessions on the economy; during their campaign, the Social Democrats promised to increase public spending, raise taxes on the wealthy, and make it easier for Danes to take early retirement after 40 years in the labor force. “It’s going to be a lengthy negotiation process,” Stubager said.
Stubager expects left-wing parties to “tie her down,” attempting to block Frederiksen from cooperating with the right on immigration. “They haven’t made it easy for themselves,” he said. “But I’m convinced that without their move on immigration, they wouldn’t have performed as well.’”
One Social Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the party’s slide had cemented Islamophobia into the center of Danish politics, but that Denmark wasn’t alone in this. “When it comes to our debate on immigration, the far right has won,” she told me. “The left has lost. The center has lost. This is true all over Europe.”
Correction: The article originally stated that Social Democrats won 91 seats in Parliament when it was a coalition of leftist parties led by the Social Democrats that won 91 seats.