Waiting for Helle
“They’re putting on their jackets!” someone calls out. For the last two hours a crowd has been gathering outside Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s terraced home in Østerbro.
The election results are still coming through but it looks like the Social Democrat leader is going to be the country’s next prime minister. There are about two-hundred of us and we are going to be the first people to see her.
Helicopters whir overhead while camera crews and photographers line up against the gate a few meters from her front door. Two floodlights light the building’s façade and a few policemen keep watch on the far side of the street. People stand phone in hand checking the election results. A group of twenty-somethings sing songs and preteens jostle for a view.
“It’s about time we had a female prime minister. Nobody’s really mentioned it, but it’s a really big deal,” Pie Meulenkamp says.
She works as a civil servant at the Agriculture Ministry and said she voted for a red bloc party because she felt was important to remove the current government.
“I’m just really happy to see a new government come to power with new ideas. Right now they’re far too right-wing and they make Denmark look bad abroad. I want to Denmark to be seen as the country it was before this government. People are no longer proud to be Danish.”
The presence of the Danish media is a signal Thorning-Schmidt is indoors, but rumours that she’s snuck out are circulating. “She’s going to sneak out the back,” someone says. “No, there’s only one entrance. This is the only way out,” another answers reassuringly.
School teacher Nina Jensen is standing off to the side with a group of friends. They were at an election party around the corner when they decided to try their luck.
“Helle might be the first female Danish prime minister, but that’s not the biggest deal – it’s the fact we’re getting a new government,” Jensen said, adding that she was a fan.
“I like her a lot and I voted for her personally. What she stands for is important and there seems to be a lot of good will about having a female prime minister.”
Jensen talked about how the current government’s education policies were damaging the school system. “I don’t look forward to having 28 children in a classroom. It’s impossible to teach that many children. We don’t have the time or the resources.”
By 11pm the crowd has doubled and the temperature starts to drop. Young people gathered behind the photographers chat animatedly, their parents watching on from a safe distance. A father approaches his daughter and offers her a jacket but she shrugs him off, joining the chant, “Heeeeeelle, he-lle, he-lle” to the tune of ‘Olé!’.
Some of them are eyeing the TV cameras. “If we’re going to get on TV we’ve got to do something crazy. How about you film me in front of Helle and we’ll put it on YouTube and say TV2 filmed it!” one boy said to another.
I ask if they cared much for politics or whether they are just here to get on television. One of them, 14-year-old Frederik-Emil Scharleng argued: “Of course, being famous is important and you only ever see people on TV if they’re doing something stupid.” There’s a sparkle in his eye, perhaps he’s being facetious.
What about Helle Thorning-Schmidt? “I wouldn’t vote for her but I wouldn’t tell you who I voted for even if I could. That’s my personal preference,” he said.
“But she’s super hot and has got great hair. And have you seen those suits she wears? She looks great.”
His friend Fini Brandt, also 14, preferred Social Liberal leader Margrethe Vestager. “I like the way that she’s bringing centre-right politics into the centre-left government and the way they are on their own on the right of the left. She does her own thing,” he said.
The TV2 News reporter was interviewing the kids when she stopped and declared, “Lars Løkke is making his speech.” She presses in her ear-piece and recites passages from his speech in which he concedes defeat. Then there’s a shout when someone notices activity through the glass front door. “They’re putting on their jackets!”
Thorning-Schmidt stands on her doorstep two meters from the crowd, bombarded by flashes and cries from supporters. Middle-aged men brandishing roses shout “Congratulations! Congratulations, Helle!” She waves and smiles, the crowd is buzzing frenetically, screaming, shouting, pushing their way closer.
Then it all goes real quick. She walks to the gate, husband Stephen Kinnock in tow, punches the air in victory before the police form a human shield around them. They start moving towards her car, the TV crews jogging backward trying to get a live interview. She reaches her car, she waves one final time and she’s bundled in and off they drive. The crowd scatters as people rush home to watch Thorning-Schmidt make her victory speech in Vega.
Most of the people I spoke to lived in the neighbourhood and had just come down to offer their congratulations. Some were Social Democrat supporters, many were not. But Thorning-Schmidt represented to most them a departure from the politics of the last decade. To see her emerge victorious was to be present at a new chapter in Danish politics from the very beginning. But where else can people get so close to their political leaders? And does this proximity increase political accountability? In a country with the lowest political corruption and one of the highest political participation, it's hard not to see a connection.