COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt conceded defeat in Thursday’s general election and resigned as Social Democratic party leader after a record score for a far-right anti-immigration party lifted the opposition right-wing bloc to victory.
“Dear friends, I have decided to step down and therefore our party now has to find another leader,” she said, her voice shaking.
“Tomorrow I will go to the Queen and tell her that the government is stepping down. Now it is up to Lars Loekke Rasmussen to try to form a government,” she added, referring to the leader of the main right-wing party Venstre.
The anti-immigration Danish People’s Party (DPP) unexpectedly became the second-largest winners from the vote, helping the right-wing opposition to victory in a race that pollsters had described as too close to call.
Thorning-Schmidt’s approval ratings languished for most of her four-year tenure as the economy dipped in and out of recession and her center-left coalition cut benefits and lowered taxes.
But she rebounded in opinion polls after calling the election three weeks ago as economic growth returned and by talking tough on immigration.
The DPP, which backed right-wing governments between 2001 and 2011, has yet to say whether it would seek to join a right-wing government. It could opt to remain outside government and provide informal support to the right-wing bloc in parliament to pass legislation.
“We are not afraid of being in government if that position gives us the greatest political influence,” DPP leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl told news agency Ritzau.
“It’s not certain that they will give us the concessions needed,” he added, referring to a potential right-wing coalition.
The DPP had campaigned on tighter immigration rules, higher pensions for low-income earners and more money for healthcare and the elderly.
After the first exit polls were released, Dahl, visibly moved, sang the Liverpool FC anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as he took to the stage at a party event in the Danish parliament, cheered on by party workers and supporters.
“This election campaign has shown that we are a party that the others just can’t avoid. We are a party to be taken seriously here in this country,” he said.
Immigration and the rising cost of housing asylum seekers was a major campaign theme for both right and left, along with the economy and the future of Denmark’s cherished cradle-to-grave welfare state.
Thorning-Schmidt, in power since 2011, and the right-wing opposition bloc leader Lars Loekke Rasmussen, who governed from 2009 to 2011, both tried to claim credit for a resurgent economy and tried to woo voters with pledges to curb immigration.
Around nine percent of Denmark’s 5.7 million inhabitants were born abroad.
A string of minor spending scandals undermined voter confidence in Rasmussen.
“The party won’t be able to set the agenda for a right-wing government… That will instead be Kristian Thulesen Dahl,” Lars Trier Mogensen, a political commentator at the Information newspaper, told tabloid Ekstra Bladet.
Others suggested the DPP would have to join a right-wing government even if it meant the party, often accused of populism, would have to “take responsibility.”
“The DPP can’t duck anymore. It would be to betray their voters if they don’t join the government now,” Sos Marie Serup, a political commentator at the BT tabloid, said.
“The right-wing voters have told the Danish People’s Party that they must assume responsibility,” she said.
With opinion polls showing a dead heat between the two blocs and 20 percent of voters undecided, politicians campaigned right until the last minute.
Unusually for a Social Democrat, Thorning-Schmdit campaigned on the slogan “If you come to Denmark you should work.” Her government has also introduced temporary residence permits for refugees, as part of its efforts to stem an influx of asylum seekers.
Rasmussen has said he would cut back the number of asylum seekers by slashing benefits for new immigrants and by making it harder to obtain permanent residency.