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A year later, PM still struggling to find footing
A year into her job as the prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt faces a tougher battle to win the hearts and minds of voters than she did when she first took the oath of office.
Since her election on 15 September 2011, Thorning-Schmidt has seen her popularity, and that of her party Socialdemkraterne, of which she is chairman, suffer a steep decline.
On Monday, results of an opinion poll by the Ritzau news bureau showed Socialdemokraterne winning just 18.8 percent of the vote, should an election be called today, down from the 24.8 percent the party won during last year’s general election. The two other center-left parties in Thorning-Schmidt’s coalition government also registered falls, with the results reflecting a pattern of dwindling support observed in recent months.
“The government has not made life easy for itself,” said Rune Stubager, an associate professor of political science at Aarhus University
He pointed to the government’s decision to tackle “intricate and challenging issues”, such as tax reform, while refusing to extend public unemployment benefits, a sensitive issue, beyond the existing two-year period, as examples of its “risky strategy”.
“They are hoping the economy will turn sometime in the near future and then they will be rewarded for their steady hand on the economic wheel. But so far, we have not seen this change in the economy,” Stubager said.
Monday’s opinion poll showed that the government coalition would win 75 seats in parliament, as opposed to the center-right opposition block’s 100 seats.
The result is symbolic, but significant, given the start of the new parliamentary year on Tuesday. In her opening address to parliament, Thorning-Schmidt highlighted her government’s efforts to create jobs and green growth, restructure taxes, and improve education.
PROMISES AND REALITY
In the past 12 months, the center-left coalition, comprising the Radikle (R) and the Socialistisk Folkeparti (SF), has launched measures to cut the budget deficit, and to kick-start growth in the sluggish economy via a stimulus package.
“They have tried to make fiscal expansion in a period with low growth, high unemployment. I think that is the right thing to do,” said Lars Andersen, director of AE, a left-leaning think tank.
“They have also coupled this policy with structural reforms, which would affect the growth potential of the economy,” he added.
But reforms to cut early retirement pensions, and not extend public unemployment benefits, have angered the left-wing parties’ traditional voter base, including women and public-sector unions.
“They have focused too much on labour supply and long-run effects, and too little effort on short term problems,” Andersen said.
Yet the major reason for voter anger is that the SF and Radikale, who ran a joint election campaign, broke a number of their election pledges. Tight budgets meant they had no choice but to go back on their word and abolish the expensive early retirement program, and to continue with the existing unemployment benefit scheme.
Opposition from Radikale, and from business, meant they could not implement a much-vaunted tax on millionaires, nor cut public transport costs by 40 percent, nor levy a congestion charge to help reduce traffic in Copenhagen.
“They did not do enough to warn voters they might be forced into compromise. Instead they just said what policies they would enact,” Stubager said. “Many left-wing voters have since been very disappointed and have reasoned that these are more or less right-wing policies and ask why they voted for this government,” he added.
Some analysts blame the poor poll numbers on Denmark’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2012, saying it meant Thorning-Schmidt had to spend too much time in Brussels, leaving her unable to conduct the day-to-day business of the government. Others believe the crisis of trust in her government reflects her lack of leadership ability.
JOBS AND GROWTH
The shift in voters’ mood has boosted the popularity of opposition party Venstre, which held power between 2001 and 2011, and has led to accusations that the coalition failed to get the economy moving.
However, analysts say the government has managed economic affairs reasonably well in light of the prevailing EU debt crisis, the 2008 financial crisis and the lax fiscal policy of the erstwhile center-right government.
Indeed, the economy is relatively stable compared with most in the Eurozone, with employment around 6.3 percent, and growth in gross domestic product forecast at 1.5 percent in 2013, above the Eurozone average. The country is also on course to meet EU structural deficit targets, an important indicator of fiscal health, in 2014.
At an interview with Xinhua in September, Thorning-Schmidt said the EU crisis was high on her agenda, and that her “biggest task” was to create jobs and growth.
“I want to preserve that Denmark is a very special country, where we have a welfare state. I want to take Denmark through the economic crisis in as gentle a way as possible, so that we still have growth and jobs on the other side of this very deep crisis,” she said.
Yet Thorning-Schmidt is aware of the challenges she faces, saying to the media in September that her government should have better communicated its policies and results to voters from the outset.
Stubager expects Thorning-Schmidt to serve the remaining three years of her term, but warned that Socialdemokraterne might question her ability to lead the party during the 2015 general election, should opinion polls continue to go against her over the next year.