When Mette Frederiksen, leader of Denmark’s Social Democrats, triumphantly took to the stage at her party’s election celebration Wednesday night, she rattled off a list of the policy priorities that had propelled them to victory. Sandwiched between the traditional causes of welfare and climate change was one that was jarring from the mouth of a European center-left politician: cracking down on immigration.
The 41-year-old’s comments underlined the unapologetically hard-line anti-immigration stance her party adopted on the campaign trial, cannibalizing the policies of the far-right Danish People’s Party to win back voters anxious about immigration. Their reworked vision of European social democratic politics — asserting the need to clamp down on immigration to protect the cherished welfare state — earned the center-left party 48 seats with 25.9 percent of the vote, positioning it to form the next government.
Denmark’s elections are the latest and most extreme example of liberal parties across Europe adopting anti-immigration policies most often championed by far-right groups. This calculation has allowed the left to weather a populist surge across the continent, but analysts warn that the strategy is short-sighted, and only plays into the far-right’s hands by further mainstreaming their anti-immigration agenda.
“It has important ramifications for the future of left-wing parties elsewhere in Europe,” said Alberto-Horst Neidhardt, a policy analyst at the European Policy Center. “Virtually all left-wing parties, to differing degrees, have been positioning themselves further to the right on immigration policies, but Denmark’s Social Democrats have pushed it even farther than anyone else.”
“Virtually all left-wing parties, to differing degrees, have been positioning themselves further to the right on immigration policies”
The Social Democrats’ hard swing to the right on immigration represents a complete about-face for a party that previously held traditional center-left positions on the issue: welcoming to migrants, pro-multiculturalism, solidarity with refugees.
But that all changed in 2015, when two major events — the sudden arrival of more than one million asylum seekers on the continent, and the dramatic rise of the Danish People’s Party, which finished second in that year’s election — provoked a radical shift in direction, said Lars Koch, policy director for human rights NGO ActionAid Denmark.
That year, a record 21,300 asylum seekers arrived in Denmark, nearly triple the amount two years earlier — but that number swiftly dropped to just 3,500 in 2017. It’s remained at that level since.
Still, the public hasn’t let go of the 2015 refugee crisis, in part because the populist right hasn’t let them. Social Democrats have responded to the ceaseless hysteria by treating immigration as a threat to their traditional voter base, the Danish worker.
The result has been increasingly harsh policies directed at immigrants and asylum seekers.
While the Social Democrats have spent the last four years on the sidelines of government, trying to win back power, they have consistently supported populist anti-migrant measures passed by the minority center-right government, which has also tacked rightwards. Those measures have included bans on the burqa and niqab, as well as the symbolically punitive “jewelry bill” that allowed police to seize asylum seekers’ valuables to offset the cost of supporting them.
“Whenever the Danish People’s Party has proposed anything the past four years, the Social Democrats have said: ‘Yeah, great idea,’” said Koch.
As well as co-signing the Danish Peoples’ Party’s hardline measures, the Social Democrats have come up with their own tough proposals to rival them: a key platform of their campaign has been a plan to relocate refugees to camps in North Africa to prevent them seeking asylum on Danish soil.
While the new direction has been sharply criticized by human rights groups and other liberal parties, the center-left party has been unapologetic.
“You are not a bad person just because you are worried about immigration,” Frederiksen insisted during a debate earlier this month.
But while the new direction may have proved successful in winning back voters, observers caution it may not ultimately amount to a resounding victory.
“If politics becomes a competition about who can talk the toughest about refugees and minorities, the radical right will always win”
Frederiksen said Thursday that she hopes to form a single-party minority government, with support from other parties on an issue-to-issue basis. But, analysts say, the party’s anti-immigration positions are fiercely opposed by its natural allies on the left, while the Danish People’s Party — who it was counting on for support — is now a depleted force (it plunged from 21.1 percent in 2015 to just 8.7 percent in Wednesday’s election.)
“It leaves the Social Democrats in a pickle because the partner they had envisioned working with has been decimated,” said Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, an assistant professor at Aalborg University.
In the end, the party’s success Wednesday may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. Though voting patterns indicate anti-immigration politics are now unequivocally part of the Danish mainstream, the mandate for greater anti-migration measures doesn’t appear to have changed all that much. Furthermore, the Social Democrats’ vote share was slightly down compared to 2015, said Lemberg-Pedersen — hardly a robust endorsement of its strategy.
So while Frederiksen celebrates her party's return to power, politicians across Europe should be wary of following in her footsteps, analysts say. Quite simply: It would be a mistake to take Denmark as a model for the center-left’s resurgence.
“I’m very skeptical that copy/pasting the policies of the radical right will guarantee Denmark’s Social Democrats and the center-left elsewhere in Europe a flourishing future,” said Niedhardt. “If politics becomes a competition about who can talk the toughest about refugees and minorities, the radical right will always win.”
Cover: Voters wait in line at a polling station in Odense, Denmark, during the general elections on Wednesday June 5, 2019. (Tim Kildeborg Jensen/RitzauScanpix via AP)