Danish right set to claim narrow election victory

DENMARK'S CENTRE-RIGHT government seems set for a narrow election victory today, as it promises more tough anti-immigration measures and tax cuts while pledging to defend the country's welfare state.

With 11th-hour opinion polls predicting a tight finish, the Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said it would be "dangerous to take the result for granted." He added: "Taking into account the strong economic situation and general feeling of happiness, I can't blame you for thinking you are reporting from an election campaign in a fairytale country."

Until the last few days Mr Rasmussen's victory looked certain, and political analysts still expect him to emerge victorious, although opinion polls have narrowed in the run up to voting day. The Prime Minister's strong position underlines a remarkable comeback for a man whose party was languishing in voter surveys only a year ago.

Victory for his Liberal Party would be a fillip for Tony Blair because he also backed the war in the Iraq. Although most Danes initially backed the war and the opposition fell into line, six out of 10 now favour withdrawing troops - five of whom have been charged with abusing Iraqi prisoners. However, Iraq has featured little in an election campaign dominated by welfare benefits and immigration.

The telegenic Mr Rasmussen, who has presided over a successful economy, has stolen the clothes of the populist far-right Danish People's Party, which has given unofficial support to the government, by launching an unprecedented crack down on immigration.

In July 2002, Denmark tightened its laws and decided only to accept refugees as defined by the Geneva Conventions, meaning those who have been or have concrete fears of being persecuted because of their race, religion or political beliefs. Denmark has also made it harder for foreigners to get residence permits and bring in spouses born outside the EU, and closed a host of asylum reception centres. The combined measures led to a dramatic drop in the number of asylum-seekers, from 12,512 in 2001 to 3,222 last year.

Meanwhile Mr Rasmussen has left his Social Democrat opponents little room for manoeuvre by proclaiming his commitment to Denmark's popular welfare state. Despite promising tax cuts, he has persuaded many that these can be achieved without eating into their prized social security benefits, which include high quality health care and education, generous unemployment benefits and guaranteed childcare.

Suave and self-assured, if aloof, Mr Rasmussen has appeared confident, while the Social Democrats have laboured under the uncharismatic Mogens Lykketoft.

The Social Democrats, having appeared set for their worst result in more than 30 years, have bounced back in late polling on warnings that tax cuts would mean "massive" cuts in welfare programmes. But a dull campaign has failed to convince many that welfare benefits would be under real threat from a second term of Mr Rasmussen.

The Social Democrats' have also seen their vote eaten into by the anti- immigrant Danish People's Party. "They've sold out," says Steen, a 41- year old postal worker, who along with many other former Social Democrats has switched sides in protest at what they see as an ineffective and complacent opposition. "I'd really like to shock these guys. That's why this time I'll vote for the DPP," he said.

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