Neighbours wary of Danish voters' move to the right

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The Independent Online

A lurch to the political right in Denmark provoked alarm among its neighbours on Wednesday because members of the incoming government have issued anti-immigration pledges.

After an unexpectedly visceral election campaign swept the Social Democrats from power, the prime ministers of Sweden and Norway expressed concern at the xenophobic drift of Danish politics. The new coalition will be led by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the leader of the Venstre, or Liberal Party, but will call on the support of conservatives and of the far-right Danish People's Party, led by Pia Kjaersgaard.

Ms Kjaersgaard, who has a long record of opposition to immigration and declared a "holy war" on Islam after 11 September, will not have a cabinet post. Mr Fogh Rasmussen has said, though, that he will accept the parliamentary support of her party, which now has the third-highest number of seats.

Denmark's stance on immigration comes within eight months of it taking over the European Union's rotating presidency and could be an acute embarrassment. Last year 14 EU nations took political sanctions against Austria when Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party joined the government.

The centre-piece election pledge of the Danish Liberal Party was a promise to make immigrants wait seven years before becoming eligible for payments from the generous welfare system. Observers say that implementing this consistently with national law and international obligations is the coalition's first test.

Yesterday the implications of the vote were felt throughout the region. Goran Persson, Sweden's Social Democratic Prime Minister, said: "It's clear I'm worried. We now see a centre-right government which will be forced to prop itself up with anti-foreigner ideas."

Kjell Magne Bondevik, the Norwegian Prime Minister, said aspects of the Danish campaign had "caused concern. I hope and believe Denmark will still follow a humane refugee and immigration policy."

The scale of the defeat was a stinging rebuff to the outgoing Prime Minister, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen (no relation to his successor), the EU's longest-serving premier, who held office for nine years.

His opponents tapped into boredom with the government. But the most striking aspect of the campaign was the extent to which even centre parties jumped on the anti-immigration bandwagon. One of the Liberal Party's advertisements focused on a rape case after which the immigrant offenders received relatively light sentences. The picture showed the young men leaving the court house under the caption: "It's time for a change".

A focus of the campaign was the right of relatives of immigrants and political asylum- seekers to enter Denmark, as politicians competed to establish their hardline credentials.

Mr Fogh Rasmussen called for tighter limits for asylum- seekers and refugees, while Mr Nyrup Rasmussen claimed that Denmark's rules were already the toughest in Europe. Ms Kjaersgaard, who once said she crossed the street when she met a Muslim, exploited increased fears of immigrants, arguing: "Islam, with the fundamentalist tendencies we have seen, must be combated." The prosperous nation of 5.3 million people halted open immigration in 1973 and has a lower proportion of ethnic minorities than most EU nations.

Lykke Friis, senior research fellow at the Danish Institute of International Affairs, said: "What happened was that the big parties, the Social Demo-crats and the Liberals, tried to take over some of the rhetoric of the Danish People's Party." Professor Ole Borre, of Aarhus University, compared the situation to that of Austria. He argued: "There is a hypnotic concern with immigration issues in Denmark, which we haven't seen anywhere else, except from Austria."

Mr Nyrup Rasmussen called the election after polls showed an improvement in his rating because of his leadership since 11 September. Mr Fogh Rasmussen's bloc won 98 seats compared with 77 for Mr Nyrup Rasmussen's grouping. The Social Democrats trailed the Liberals in numbers of seats for the first time since 1920.

Political analysts say the political direction of the new government will not be universally conservative. Mr Fogh Rasmussen has promised to improve the welfare state and peg taxes – and presented cuts in immigrants' benefits as a way of squaring the circle.

Paradoxically, Denmark also elected its first MP of immigrant extraction. Naser Khader, 38, who has a Syrian background, said: "It is a great victory for me and for the integration policy in Denmark. It sends a signal that Denmark is not solely xenophobic."