Nato leadership contest adds spice to Danish election

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THE CONTEST for the leadership of Nato intruded on the Danish general election yesterday, 24 hours before the Social Democrat- led coalition was expected to be returned to power for a second term.

Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, the former foreign minister and the leader of the liberal Venstre Party, has emerged as an unofficial candidate for the Brussels job. Reports from the Nato headquarters and from the Danish capital even suggest that the Danish Prime Minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, has privately backed the candidacy of his election rival.

'Political power-play over top Nato jobs: government ready to back Ellemann-Jensen,' read yesterday's headline in the daily Politiken. Nato sources in Brussels said Mr Ellemann-Jensen was seriously in the running, after Willy Claes of Belgium had taken the lead over the previous Nordic contender, Thorvald Stoltenberg of Norway.

Mr Ellemann-Jensen - who achieved recognition for his pipe- smoking wit after the Danes voted against ratification of the Maastricht treaty in the 1992 referendum - is by Danish standards a controversial figure. Charismatic but unconciliatory, he is perceived as a leading welfare hatchet-man. He has alienated voters by admitting the xenophobic Progress Party to his liberal-conservative alliance in this election campaign. This was a last resort after the smaller centrist parties, finding him difficult to work with, opted to stay within Mr Nyrup's Social Democratic-led coalition. 'And people know the Progress Party really do mean business about destroying the welfare state,' said a Danish government source.

Last week, Danish officials were still insisting that Copenhagen supported Mr Stoltenberg as the Nordic candidate. But yesterday, when the Foreign Minister, Niels Helveg Petersen, was asked about Mr Ellemann-Jensen's candidacy, he would say only that the government could not comment on international positions immediately before a general election.

Over the past few months, Mr Ellemann-Jensen has said he is a candidate for one job only - that of prime minister of Denmark. On Monday night, however, he said that if the smaller parties found him difficult to work with, he was willing to step aside in favour of the conservative leader, Hans Engell, in the event of a non-socialist victory: 'They can put up with him, and clearly they are a bit scared of me. If I am the problem, I will happily stand back.'

Mr Nyrup, confident of victory in today's vote, clearly has reasons to back Mr Ellemann-Jensen other than just wishing him out of the way. 'This is a question about Denmark abroad, about raising its profile and about improving the Danish attitude to European defence,' said one government source.

The 1996 EU reforms will have to go to another referendum, and it is expected that only the Social Democrats - who hold some 35 per cent support in polls ahead of today's election - can persuade the electorate to accept the new structures (rather like the Swedish Social Democrats, voted back to power on Sunday after three years' in opposition, are the only party who can lead the Swedes to EU entry in their referendum this November).

Before the EU inter-governmental conference in 1996, the Danes have to be accustomed to the idea of bringing a serious defence element into the Union. A further inducement for the Danish voters to accept an EU defence pillar would be to have a Dane at the helm of the Nato alliance. As one government source said: 'Most people agree he would be a hell of a good Nato chief, rather than a suitable prime minister of Denmark.'

The Social Democrats with their coalition and supporting parties held around 55 per cent in a Gallup poll this week, against 44 per cent for Mr Ellemann-Jensen's liberal-conservative Progress Party bloc.

It is clear that bringing in the anti-immigration party has cost him dear. As one left-wing voter said: 'He tries to act like a statesman, but doesn't quite succeed. He is a bit of an egomaniac. More importantly, the way his party has evolved is even a bit worse than Thatcher. It would be Nato's loss, but our gain.'