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Denmark's election campaign has been a 'race to the bottom' on immigration


Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt speaks during a news conference

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt speaks during a news conference

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt speaks during a news conference

IT took Yahya Hassan, a 20-year-old poet-turned-politician, to call out Denmark’s Social Democrats for the harsh rhetoric on immigration that they have rolled out in this month's election campaign.

The crunch point came when Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister was asked in a televised leaders’ debate if she believed that Denmark was "a multiethnic society".

“No, we are not,” she said firmly, apparently willing to disavow the seven per cent of Danes, including many prominent politicians within her own party, who have non-European backgrounds.

“How do you think that affects minorities when they hear the Prime Minister and the opposition candidate say that?” protested Hassan, a critic of Islam who is of Palestinian origin and was once a darling of the far-Right. “That is hardly what you would define as good integration.”

Ms Thorning-Schmidt set the tone for the campaign in her New Year’s speech, when she declared: “If you come to Denmark, you must of course work. You must learn the Danish language, and you must meet and mix with Danish colleagues.”

The government then brought in tighter immigration rules, making it harder to claim asylum and easier to send refugees back if the situation in their home countries improves.

Then when the campaign began, the slogan “If you come to Denmark, you must work” was plastered over buses around the country, since when Ms Thorning-Schmidt’s own rhetoric has got ever tougher.

"Denmark is a small country and there are limits as to how many foreigners we can accept," the party says on its website under the headline, "Foreigners: Tighter Asylum Rules."

Michael Ulveman, former spin doctor for Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, believes these statements have gone a long way towards “neutralising” immigration as an issue.

“She’s stretching very far, I think as far as she possibly can when you look at her coalition partners,” he said. “It’s difficult for the voter to tell the exact difference between the opposition’s immigration policies and the government’s immigration policies.”

The shift has agonised the Social Democrats' allies on the Left. “There has been a tragic race to slam the door in the faces of refugees and I don’t want to play any part in it,” the Socialist People’s Party leader Pia Olsen Dyhr complained in the final leaders’ debate on Tuesday night.

“I think that the debate about refugees and asylum seekers during this election has been downright shameful,” agreed Uffe Elbæk from The Alternative.

The opposition have responded by moving even further to the right, with the Conservative Party rolling out “Stop Nazi Islamism” posters, and the Liberal Party demanding “an immediate halt” to a “nearly explosive influx” of asylum seekers.

The populist Danish People’s Party, which more than any other party has been responsible for shifting the immigration debate to the right in Denmark, has been able to sit back and leave the toughest rhetoric to its partners, so hoping to attract more moderate voters.

It seems to be working: the latest poll of polls gives them 17.8 per cent of the vote, up from 12.3 per cent in 2011.

Justin Cremer, editor of The Local Denmark, an English-language news site, said that many foreigners blamed the party for xenophobia.

“I’ve spoken to long-term expats who came here before 9/11 and say it’s like night and day,” he said. “They came to a Denmark that was a very welcoming society, and once the Danish People’s Party gained their position and moved immigration policy to the right, the public debate took a dramatic shift.”

Ian Manners, a professor at Copenhagen University, agreed. “I can’t think of a single party that has so fundamentally changed the climate of debate on migrants, and in particular on people of different religions,” he said. “The only parties who have achieved anything similar are the Lega Nord in Italy and the Front National in France.”

This is why many in the Social Democrats believe strident language on immigration is a price worth paying.

“To some degree I myself have also said, ‘is it necessary to use that kind of harsh tone?’” Yildiz Aktogan, a Social Democrat of Turkish origin told the Daily Telegraph. “But on the hand, if we don’t go and make a very clear statement on that issue, then we leave the floor to the Danish People’s Party.”