Denmark elects first female premier

Helle Thorning Schmidt small.jpg

The centre-left coalition led by the Social Democratic party won a closely contested election in Denmark, which will now be led by the first-ever female premier.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, whose party led an alliance known as the Red Bloc, claimed victory about three hours after the polls closed. "We've written history today," Thorning-Schmidt said.

The Red bloc won a slim majority of five seats in Denmark's 179-seat parliament, according to a preliminary tally. Turnout was a high 87.7%.

As of today, Denmark's prime minister-in-waiting Thorning-Schmidt will face the tricky task of piecing together a centre-left government after an election which ended 10 years of centre-right rule.

Climbing rather than sweeping to victory yesterday, Thorning-Schmidt led a diverse 'Red bloc' of parties that succeeded in tapping voter anger about the state of the economy and ousting Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen.

For Denmark, a nation of 5.5 million people, the election turned on the issue that has also divided many other European countries struggling with low growth, large government deficits and record national debt.

Complicating the task of forming a government is the fact that the two biggest winners of the night were the far-left Red-Green Alliance and the centrist Social Liberals.

Both back Thorning-Schmidt but agree on little else. Thorning-Schmidt's own Social Democrats actually lost ground and will be the second largest party after Rasmussen's Liberals.

"That is the political challenge," said Jorgen Elklit, political scientist at the University of Aarhus. "It will certainly take days, maybe weeks to form a government."

The economy will be the first task as Denmark prepares to take over the rotating presidency of the EU in January next year. Thorning-Schmidt's platform included increased government spending, raising taxes on the wealthy and an unusual plan to make everyone work 12 minutes more per day. An extra hour each week, her group argues, would help kick-start economic growth.

Voters turn against ruling governments

With Thorning-Schmidt's election, Denmark becomes the latest in a series of European countries to vote out incumbents at least in part because of struggling economies.

Ireland, Britain, Portugal, Finland and The Netherlands have all seen changes.

Spain's Socialist government is facing possible defeat in a 20 November general election and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has lost a series of state elections since May 2010.

Denmark has been spared much of the trauma suffered by other West European countries because it remains outside the euro zone. This means it is not involved in bailing out debt-laden countries like Greece, an issue that has stirred popular anger in neighbouring Germany.

But the economic crisis has turned Denmark's healthy surpluses into deficits, forecast to climb to 4.6% of GDP next year.

Danish banks have also been struggling, with small bank Fjordbank Mors falling into the hands of administrators in June, the ninth Danish bank to be taken over by the state since the start of the crisis in 2008.

The new prime minister is part of an extended European political family, married to the son of Neil and Glenys Kinnock. Neil was a European commissioner and British Labour Party leader, Glenys a European parliamentary deputy and Europe minister in the last Labour government.

EURACTIV with Reuters

Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, congratulated Thorning-Schmidt saying "[I] am pleased to hear that Denmark will have its first female Prime Minster. As a former colleague of this House, I hope she will become a constructive pro-European partner and look forward to working with her government."

Party of European Socialists president and former prime minister of Denmark Poul Nyrup Rasmussen hailed Thorning-Schmidt's victory and he stated that "as a proud Danish citizen, I couldn't be happier to see Denmark return to its progressive roots. Finally, in my capacity as president of the Party of European Socialists (PES) I see this result as a shining beacon to progressives all across Europe. In this time of crisis, the message tonight to all those who believe in fairness, justice and solidarity, is keep fighting, keep believing".

Philip Cordery, secretary general of the PES, noted that the Danish results were a great boost to all members of the PES family. "As we head towards 2012 and elections in France, Italy, and perhaps Germany, we can be sure that PES members across the continent will be doubling their efforts to make Europe progressive again," he added.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt was elected head of the Social Democrats just two months after winning a seat in parliament in 2005.

On her way to the top, Thorning-Schmidt fought to shake off an image in the media of an upper-class blonde socialist with expensive handbags and the nickname 'Gucci Helle'.

She defended sending her eldest daughter to private school and battled with the Danish media for prying into her and her husband Stephen Kinnock's tax affairs.

She grew up in a Copenhagen suburb, the daughter of divorced parents, and her interest in politics budded in high school where she was active in peace movements and supported the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa.

She studied political science at university, taking a particular interest in the European Union. She went on to study at the European College in Bruges in Belgium, which she has described as a life-changing experience. 

There she met her husband, who is the son of Neil and Glenys Kinnock, and a director at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. It was also in Bruges that she decided to join the Social Democratic Party in Denmark.

In 1999, she was elected to the European Parliament, but chose not to seek re-election and instead turned to Danish politics and returned home.

Denmark will take over the rotating presidency of the EU in January 2012.

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