Pia Kjærsgaard announced last night that she will step down as leader of the anti-immigration Dansk Folkeparti (DF) after 17 years at the helm.
In Kjærsgaard's shock announcement – that was carefully choreographed after seven months of secret deliberation by the DF leader and her inner circle – she said she would encourage party members to vote in MP Kristian Thulesen Dahl as leader at DF's annual conference this September, while she takes on a new role as ‘values spokesperson’.
Kjærsgaard said she would still stand in the next election for the party that she established in 1995 and led into parliament in 1998 with a quarter of a million votes.
DF quickly grew to become parliament's third largest party (out of eight) after its second general election in 2001. But despite its size, it never attempted to join a coalition government and instead opted to influence policy as outsiders.
This strategy proved extremely effective during the ten-year reign of the former centre-right coalition government whose legislation DF supported in exchange for implementing stricter immigration laws.
DF was named in polls as the party that most Danes associate with ‘Danishness’, a concept that Kjærsgaard has sought to defend throughout her leadership through a tough anti-immigration dialogue.
Kjærsgaard has been quick to identify threats from abroad: whether it’s from Middle Eastern immigrants who refuse to integrate or travelling gangs of burglars from eastern Europe. To tackle these threats, DF influenced the government to tighten the requirements for Danes to marry foreigners from non-western countries and introduce short-lived border controls with Germany.
A polarising figure, she nevertheless commanded respect from her political opponents. The former PM and leader of the centre-right party Venstre, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, praised her impact on Danish politics.
“Not everyone predicted that Dansk Folkeparti would survive for long after Pia Kjærsgaard broke away from the Fremskridtsparti. But as a result of Pia’s integrity, unfailing spirit and ceaseless effort, DF is now an unavoidable element in Danish politics. She has delivered an impressive chairmanship!”
Health minister Astrid Krag (Socialistiske Folkeparti) didn’t share Rasmussen’s views however.
”I won’t miss Pia,” Krag wrote on Facebook. “She poisoned the immigration debate for ten years and pushed false politics in which she presented herself as the protector of the little man, while also granting enormous tax breaks to CEOs.”
This morning's Danish papers were filled with commentary pondering the future of the party in the hands of Dahl, an intellectual and respected politician who lacks Kjærsgaard’s common touch. But even with a leadership change, DF’s influence is unlikely to change, as economy minister Margrethe Vestager summed up on Facebook this morning.
“Pia K is leaving. The views will remain the same. The debate about respect, openness and inclusion will continue.”