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Voters Back Opposition in Denmark

November 20, 2001

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) _ Danish voters concerned that immigrants exploit the welfare system shifted to the right in Tuesday’s parliamentary elections, giving the opposition enough seats to form a new government after eight years of Social Democratic rule, according to early results.

With 35.2 percent of the vote counted, the Liberal Party and its promised supporters, including the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, had 96 seats in the 179-seat parliament, well above the 90 seats needed for a majority.

The Social Democrats and their parliamentary supporters had fallen from 89 seats to 79,

``Everything now points at the Liberal Party being the largest party in Denmark and it has been a historical day,″ Liberal Party leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen said to supporters.

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, creating some confusion at polling stations as the paper ballots had to be placed in separate boxes.

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.

``We’re very sad. But we’re handing over a very robust Denmark to another government,″ Social Democratic Foreign Minister Mogens Lykketoft said on commercial station TV2.

The Liberal Party leader Fogh Rasmussen had 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. The two candidates are not related.

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.

``I think that the proposal ... to impose a seven-year period is good. That could maybe stop the fraud.″ said Pernille Garde, a 42-year-old office clerk. ``But I’m not a racist.″

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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