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Europe

Danes Set to Re-Elect Center-Right

As Danes prepare to vote in Tuesday's general election, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen looks well placed to retain power after a campaign dominated by the robust economy, the welfare state, taxes and immigration.

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Premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen (left) plans on celebrating his win

Public opinions polls point to a commanding victory for Rasmussen's Liberal party and its coalition partner the Conservatives, who are informally backed in parliament by the far-right Danish People's Party. The minority government's popularity is largely attributed to the fact that it has kept its controversial 2001 election promise to curb immigration, one of voters' top concerns, and has restored Denmark's economy to good health: growth is strong, unemployment is low, inflation is under control and the public budget shows a surplus.

Consumer confidence in Denmark last month hit its highest level since the national statistics agency began measuring the indicator 30 years ago, and, according to a recent Gallup poll, three out of four Danes feel their financial situation today is "good" or "very good."

"This heightened consumer confidence makes it even more difficult, or rather impossible, for the (opposition) Social Democrats to beat the government when it comes to the economy," Hans Joergen Nielsen, a political scientist at Copenhagen University, told AFP.

As a sign of the strong morale in the Scandinavian country, Danes are the "happiest people in the world," a study of 90 countries recently showed.

Early elections

Fußgängerzone in Kopenhagen

Polls say Denmark's 4 million voters favor Rasmussen over Lykketoft

In view of the favorable conditions, Rasmussen decided to call elections nine months before the legislative period was set to end. A market liberal in power since 2001, Rasmussen has vowed to maintain the strict immigration regulations, not raise taxes and create 60,000 new jobs by 2010. On Sunday, Justice Minister Lene Esperson said the government, if re-elected, would expel young immigrant recidivists for life.

"We have to act when faced with this particular group of young criminal foreigners who are completely indifferent to everything and who lack respect for existing sanctions," Esperson said.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats, who suffered their worst election results in 28 years when they lost power in 2001, could hit new low this time, some polls suggest. With a content electorate, the opposition has little to offer voters, observers say.

"The Liberal party has succeeded in stealing many of the Social Democrats' traditional weapons, portraying itself as the defender of the less privileged, of families with children, pensioners and the public sector," Copenhagen University political scientist Lars Bille told AFP. "The battle comes down to a personality contest between Rasmussen and (Social Democrat leader Mogens) Lykketoft," a duel the prime minister wins hands down thanks to his charisma, Bille said.

Criticism from human rights groups

Denmark's immigration policy, possibly the most restrictive in Europe, has been one of the biggest issues in the campaign. The issue was instrumental in sweeping Rasmussen to power in 2001, when he vowed to limit the number of immigrants allowed into the country in order to focus efforts on better integrating foreigners already living there.

Influenced by its key ally the far-right Danish People's Party, the government has implemented a slew of restrictions, including delaying refugees' eligibility for permanent residence permits from three years to seven, restricting asylum conditions for conscientious objectors and persecuted homosexuals, and reducing welfare payments for new immigrants to make Denmark a less attractive destination.

While the measures have been highly controversial, earning Denmark harsh criticism from human rights groups, they are widely accepted by a majority of Danes.

Wary of losing even more voters, the Social Democrats have said they will not alter the current policy if they are elected. But Rasmussen and the Danish People's Party have suggested that a Social Democratic government would eventually reopen the borders. Almost 5 percent of the 5.4 million people in Denmark are immigrants. The figure reaches 8 percent if those who have acquired Danish citizenship are included.


Danish troops in Iraq

Another heated debate has concerned the government's controversial decision to participate in the Iraq war. The government has tried to avoid any discussion on the subject, well aware that it is one of few issues that could threaten its hold on power. A clear majority of Danes remain opposed to Denmark's involvement in the war and want the 525 Danish soldiers deployed in Iraq brought home. Opposition parties have promised to bring the troops home at the end of their mandate in June if elected. Around 2,000 people protested in the Danish capital against the war on Saturday.

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