Denmark’s struggling economy has dominated the opening exchanges in the country’s general election campaign as the left-leaning opposition bids to end a decade of centre-right rule in next month’s poll.
Lars Løkke Rasmussen, prime minister, announced on Friday that an election would be held on September 15, with opinion polls showing his government facing an uphill struggle to avoid defeat.
An opposition victory would give the Scandinavian country its first woman prime minister in Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of the Social Democratic party. It would also mark a rare success for Europe’s centre-left at a time when the region is often said to be shifting to the right.
In their first official skirmishes of the campaign, the rival leaders argued over who was to blame for Denmark’s economic problems and who had the best plan to revive growth.
While the rest of Scandinavia has enjoyed a strong recovery from the global downturn, Denmark returned to recession this year and parts of its banking sector are in trouble.
The election takes place amid a crisis in Denmark’s banking sector after the collapse of several small regional lenders weighed down by bad loans. A bipartisan plan was announced on Thursday aimed at encouraging consolidation in the sector and helping troubled lenders avoid insolvency.
Ms Thorning-Schmidt said her party, best known for its commitment to the strong Danish welfare system, would make economic growth its top priority.
“We have a very ambitious package to jumpstart the Danish economy,” she said. “Without growth we can’t pay down our debt, and without growth there’s no money for welfare.”
Mr Rasmussen urged voters to keep faith with his government’s “responsible and prudent” recovery plans and dismissed the opposition’s promises as “wishful thinking”.
Latest opinion polls have shown opposition parties, led by the Social Democrats, with about 53 per cent support and the governing parties with 47 per cent. Kasper Moller Hansen, political professor at the University of Copenhagen, predicted the race would tighten.
Analysts said the campaign’s economic focus appeared to signal a shift away from the fraught debate over immigration which has taken centre-stage in recent Danish elections.
“This will be a classic left-right election,” said Mr Moller Hansen. “The centre-right will stress financial responsibility and reduction of the fiscal deficit. And the centre-left will talk about reducing unemployment and guarding welfare through public investments.”
Centre-right parties have ruled Denmark since 2001 with support in parliament from the right-wing Danish People’s party (DPP), one of several anti-immigrant parties to have made electoral gains across Europe in recent years.
Mr Moller Hansen said the reduced prominence of immigration in this year’s election was due not only to the economic crisis but also because mainstream parties had moved closer to the hardline policies of the DPP. Latest polls show the DPP’s support at around 11 per cent, compared with nearly 14 per cent in 2007.
Mr Rasmussen on Tuesday unveiled a $2.1bn stimulus plan aimed at reviving economic growth, but his minority administration failed to secure enough support to push it through parliament as opposition parties touted their own rival recovery plans.
Mr Rasmussen has been prime minister since 2009, when his predecessor, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was appointed secretary-general of Nato. His government’s four-year mandate runs out on November 12.
Jes Asmussen, chief Danish economist at Handelsbanken, said Denmark was facing a tough period, whatever the election outcome. “We need to accept that we’re headed for a long and perhaps painful adjustment in the Danish economy.”