After 10 years of center-right leadership, Denmark has swung to the other side of the political spectrum. On Thursday, election results put center-left Social Democrat (SF) lead candidate Helle Thorning-Schmidt in position to form a new coalition and become the next prime minister. The 44-year-old will be the first woman to hold Denmark's highest office.
"We did it. We wrote history," Thorning-Schmidt told ecstatic supporters in Copenhagen. With almost all votes counted on Thursday evening, results showed the Social Democrats-led the "Red bloc" alliance of left and center parties in the lead of an election that had high voter turnout.
Ousted Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen conceded defeat late in the evening, announcing he would submit his formal resignation to Queen Margrethe II on Friday.
But Thorning-Schmidt's success is bittersweet because she owes it mainly to gains made by smaller allied parties. In fact, her Social Democrats lost support, coming in as the second-strongest party for their worst result in 100 years.
Still, the center-left camp gained a narrow majority, garnering 92-seats out of 179 in the Danish parliament, the Folketing. Despite her own party's dismal results, Thorning-Schmidt remained confident. "The Social Democrats are still a large and driving force in Denmark," she said, promising moderate policies "from which no one need feel excluded."
Voters Punish Conservatives and Populists
Meanwhile, Rasmussen's pro-business Liberal Party of Denmark (Venstre) remained the largest party in the country with a slight increase in support. "We are still Denmark's biggest party, and we are proud of that," Rasmussen said. "We are handing in the keys for a country that has weathered the crisis well."
But Rasmussen's junior coalition partners, the Conservative People's Party, with whom he'd formed a minority in the last election, underwent a massive loss of support, down to about half of the 10.4 percent they earned in 2007.
Voters also punished the right-wing populist Danish People's Party, which had played the role of kingmaker by supporting Rasmussen's center-right coalition to ensure its parliamentary majority. After driving the coalition to implement tough immigration policies, preliminary results showed the party dropped to 12.3 percent in the polls, down from 13.9 percent in 2007. Now the party's influence appears to have been broken with the election of the center-left block.
In recent years, the Danish People's Party has been a regular fixture in the international headlines. At one point, the party calculated the total cost of foreign immigrants to the country. It also succeeded in forcing the government to implement permanent border controls, sidestepping the Schengen Agreement on open borders and alienating Denmark from its European Union neighbors. Most recently, party leader Pia Kjaersgaard pledged that all Danes would be provided with free supplies of pepper spray. "There is a large consensus going deep into conservative Danish circles that the cooperation between the conservative-liberals and the conservatives in government with the right-populists ruined the country's political culture," the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten wrote in an editorial. "It was time for a new government. An era in Danish politics has ended."
Still, changes to the controversial immigration policies implemented by the last government are not on incoming leader Thorning-Schmidt's list of priorities. Her pet reforms focus on the economy. Though Denmark has weathered the European debt crisis relatively well because it is not in the euro zone, surpluses have still turned into deficits that are predicted to reach some 4.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) next year.
Thorning-Schmidt, whose Social Democrats have their roots in the workers' movement, promised a "kick-start" for the Danish economy through sweeping public investments.
Tough and Media-Savvy Leader
Her victory comes after she lost her first bid to lead the country against Rasmussen in 2007. Known as a tough, media-savvy and ambitious politician, Thorning-Schmidt's political career has moved swiftly. Just weeks after entering the Folketing for the first time in 2005, the daughter-in-law of former British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock was voted leader of the Social Democrats. But she also suffered the ridicule of fellow party members, who found her aloof and mocked her with the nickname "Gucci Helle" for her extravagant fashion choices.
Now that she has reached the top, Thorning-Schmidt faces a rough start, though. Analysts say she will have no trouble forming a coalition, but they worry that the group of small centrist and left-wing allied parties can agree on little beyond their support for Thorning-Schmidt.
"With a parliamentary basis consisting of parties in deep mutual dispute over the most important questions in society, the election victory last night could turn out to be a short-lived triumph for Thorning-Schmidt," daily Berlingske said.
Thorning-Schmidt has promised speedy coalition negotiations, though it remains uncertain which parties will ultimately band together.