Denmark Faces an Election Fueled by Anger on Climate and Immigration

It was the sort of campaign appearance that Mette Frederiksen, leader of the left-leaning Social Democrats, would have ordinarily considered friendly terrain — a gathering of environmentally minded students in her hometown, Aalborg, in Denmark. Except the students demanded whether Ms. Frederiksen knew the carbon footprint of the red roses her party gave away at campaign stops.

She didn’t. And the students — who also criticized her climate policy for failing to mention the Paris accord — didn’t let her forget it.

“We want action. Something must happen,” said Mathilde Christiansen, a senior.

In the maelstrom of European politics, Denmark is usually fairly quiet, routinely ranking among the world’s happiest, wealthiest and most egalitarian nations. But the national elections scheduled for Wednesday have shaken the country from any complacency, as two very different issues are roiling the political landscape: climate change and immigration.

In recent elections, the right-wing Danish People’s Party has won power by taking a hard line on immigration and pushing tough policies on asylum seekers. The Social Democrats have taken a pummeling, and Ms. Frederiksen has moved her party to the right on immigration in an attempt to win back working-class voters — even as she is trying to keep up with the green wave influencing the younger electorate.

“The Social Democrats lost four out of five elections this century because of the immigration issue,” said Kristian Madsen, a political analyst for Politiken, a daily newspaper. He added that the shift had come even as climate change had “broken through” as a political issue.

Four years ago, climate change barely registered as an election concern in Denmark. But in a nation that juts into the North and Baltic Seas, polls now show that 46 percent of voters rank climate change as their top concern, compared to 27 percent in 2017.

The push for climate action is driven by younger voters who express deep alarm about rising seas and rising temperatures.

“I was doubting if I could allow myself to have children in this world which could collapse in 30 to 40 years,” Frederik Sandby, 26, said.

Once apolitical, Mr. Sandby has now joined the global youth protest movement trying to force action on climate change. He and other protesters have camped outside the Danish Parliament, trying to pressure political parties, while he says he is also adjusting his personal habits, such as trying to refrain from air travel, to reduce his own carbon footprint.

In a recent survey of 9,000 Danish respondents, more than 50 percent said they were willing to make “significant reductions” in consumption and wealth to mitigate the climate problem, while four out of five predicted that future generations would suffer from environmental change.

Pia Kjaersgaard, a leader of the Danish People’s Party and the speaker of Parliament, recently dismissed environmentally focused voters as “climate fools,” while her party’s chairman, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, warned that critics who criticized the agricultural sector for its carbon emissions were guilty of “climate hysteria.”

In April, an event organized by the far-right leader Rasmus Paludan provoked violent protests in Copenhagen.

Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In April, an event organized by the far-right leader Rasmus Paludan provoked violent protests in Copenhagen.CreditMads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As in elections past, right-wing politicians have tried to turn the conversation to immigration.

On a recent Friday on the outskirts of Copenhagen, senior officials in the Danish People’s Party rented a hot-dog stand on a square in Bronshoj, offering free food and presenting anti-immigration policies. Bronshoj has witnessed rising crime, and the party’s activists attributed the problems to gangs of immigrants. The proprietor of the square’s usual hot-dog stand was reportedly driven away by youths allegedly demanding halal meat and upset about the pork content in the sausages.

“We’re here to show we’ve received non-Western immigrants to Denmark who aren’t bothered with Denmark, who believe they can take control,” said Peter Skaarup, chairman of the party’s parliamentary group. “They won’t be allowed to do that.”

During the 1990s, the Danish People’s Party was the first party to criticize immigration and integration policies. Since then, it has used its electoral success to toughen Denmark’s policies on immigrants. Face covering is banned in public and benefits are reduced for asylum seekers.

Now, though, two other far-right parties have emerged and are trying to outflank the government on immigration. One of them, led by Rasmus Paludan, is promising deportations of Muslims in the hundreds of thousands.

Martin Krasnik, editor in chief of Weekendavisen, a weekly newspaper, said their appearance on the scene was part of a trend. “For 30 years, everybody’s been moving to the right, right, right,” he said.

Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark, center-right, with Michael R. Bloomberg, the United Nations special envoy for climate action, in Copenhagen in May.

Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Paludan made headlines last year for spewing profanity-laced tirades against immigrants on YouTube. He routinely desecrated the Quran in public events, in what he described as an exercise in free speech.

In April, after Mr. Paludan again desecrated a Quran, protests against him erupted into widespread violence in Copenhagen, with the police making more than 20 arrests. Helped by the media attention on the riots, Mr. Paludan gathered enough signatures to qualify as a candidate for Parliament.

But his presence in the election seems to have sobered the minds of many voters, while also bringing problems for the Danish People’s Party.

“Voters certainly still want a strict immigration policy, but there is a different kind of deliberation and reflection across the board now,” Mr. Krasnik, the editor, said.

Figures show the number of asylum seekers has actually dropped to the lowest level in Denmark in a decade. Even as the Danish People’s Party warns that the Social Democrats could loosen immigration policies, the reality is that both parties have largely supported the tougher line in parliamentary votes in recent years.

Ms. Frederiksen, the leader of the Social Democrats, has been ahead in the polls and has said that she would mostly maintain a tough stance on migrants, creating a highly unusual policy mix for a European left-wing party. She said such an approach was a necessity, “if we want this society to function.”

Mr. Madsen, the analyst, noted that the tactics could provide a template. “What we’re seeing is a laboratory for what the center-left can be,” he said.




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