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Liberal Party Wins at Danish Polls

November 21, 2001

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) _ Danish voters concerned that immigrants exploit the welfare system shifted to the right in parliamentary voting Tuesday, handing the Liberal Party-led opposition a landslide victory over the Social Democrats.

With 98.9 percent of the vote counted, the Liberal Party and its supporters, including the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, had 98 seats in the 179-seat parliament, well above the 90 needed for a majority. The ruling Social Democrats and their parliamentary supporters won just 77 seats, down from 89 held in the last parliament.

``It has been a historic day,″ said Liberal Party leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen, widely expected to be chosen the next prime minister. ``If I am given the opportunity ... I’ll be prime minister for the whole population.″

Denmark’s 4 million voters chose from 984 candidates in 10 parties for four-year parliamentary terms in the Folketing, or parliament. For the first time, elections were held for county and municipal officials on the same day as the national vote.

Social Democratic Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, 58, who has led the country since 1993, set the date for the quadrennial elections late last month. His popularity soared with his strong support for the U.S.-led fight against terrorism, only to fall as the immigration debate exposed ruling party divisions. The two candidates are not related.

``The country we are now handing over to a right-leaning government is a well-functioning country,″ said Nyrup Rasmussen, who will remain in a caretaker role until a new government is formed within days. ``We will be a fair and consistent opposition.″

The more charismatic 48-year-old Fogh Rasmussen has played down criticism of xenophobia but pledged to crack down on foreigners trying to cheat the system.

``Denmark must not be the social security office for the rest of the world,″ he said during the three-week campaign.

It was the first time since 1920 that the Liberals, with 56 projected seats compared with 42 seats in 1998, surpassed the Social Democrats, who dropped from 63 seats to 52.

Many voters also said they were looking for a government change as they cast their ballots Tuesday morning.

``Nyrup (Rasmussen) seems burned out and doesn’t seem trustworthy any more,″ Stig Lassen, a 41-year-old businessman, said after voting at a Copenhagen school.

The parties are largely in agreement on main issues, including a need to improve education, health care, care for the elderly and economics in the country, with an unemployment rate of 5 percent, and major policy changes were not expected.

The key issue in the campaign _ family reunification for immigrants _ which has long simmered in the homogenous Lutheran country, was heightened by the attacks on New York and Washington. Critics also say the law provides a way for foreigners living here to bring in spouses and children and take advantage of generous benefits.

The prosperous Scandinavian nation of 5.3 million people halted open immigration in 1973 but still allows relatives of immigrants and political asylum seekers to enter.

Both Social Democrats and Liberals have promised to tighten the law. But while the ruling party wants to study the issue, the Liberals are calling for faster measures, including a seven-year waiting period before new arrivals can tap into the country’s cradle-to-grave welfare system.

About 7 percent of the Danish population is of foreign descent and the number of relatives being accepted has increased from 9,422 in 1999 to 12,571 last year _ more than twice the 5,156 people who were granted political asylum in 2000.

Fogh Rasmussen has said he would not give any government position to the Danish People’s Party, but leading political scientist Steen Sauerberg pointed out it would be difficult to exclude the populist party.

``Since (Danish People’s Party members) have been very extreme in racist attitudes, there will no doubt be concessions made to them,″ he said, adding that he was not sure how Denmark’s strict immigration laws could be tightened further.

The general elections also were held on the semiautonomous Danish territories of the Faeroe Islands and Greenland, which each chose two parliamentarians.

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