The unlikely Social Democrat

Denmark’s first female prime minister has been called a “right-oriented” Social Dem; to run her government she may have to be even more so

A little after midnight last Thursday, when all but the last of the ballots had been counted, a tall, thin, blond woman in her mid-forties strode smilingly up on a stage in Copenhagen to acknowledge victory and claim her place as DenmarkÂ’s next prime minister.

Not only had she broken the Liberal partyÂ’s ten-year grip on the government and put the Social Democrats back in power after a decade in the opposition, she was about to become DenmarkÂ’s first female prime minister.

“Dear fellow party members,” Helle Thorning-Schmidt told the jubilant crowd of Social Democratic supporters gathered for the post-election party at Copenhagen’s Vega nightclub. “WE DID IT!”

She ran on a campaign that promised to protect DenmarkÂ’s welfare state for the future and stimulate economic growth through social spending. More spending on education, rebates for homebuyers, and investment in business start-ups. More taxation in the form of a toll ring around Copenhagen. She also promised to roll back the strict immigration rules introduced by the previous government, force the unemployed to work for their benefits, and increase the work week by one hour.

In her biography, ‘Helle talks to NinkaÂ’ (‘Helle i samtale med Ninka’), Thorning-Schmidt described herself as an average Dane, who had been “shaped” by the welfare system that has been DenmarkÂ’s hallmark since the 1960s – the same system she promised to reinvigorate.

“I am a welfare society Dane. Someone before me made the welfare system I was born into and grew up in. I went to a public kindergarten and primary school that had just been built, and was in the municipal after-school programme. I am shaped by the welfare society,” Thorning-Schmidt said.

Yet despite her self-depiction, many, including some of her own party colleagues, have noted that Thorning-Schmidt hardly fits the mould of a traditional Social Democrat.

“Right-oriented. An individualist’s – not a collectivist’s woman. Doesn’t represent traditional social democratic values,” the Social Dems’ own spin doctors wrote about her when she ran for party chairman in 2005.

She was competing with Frank Jensen, CopenhagenÂ’s current mayor, to lead the party. Jensen ran a traditional left-wing campaign, while Thorning-SchmidtÂ’s was more reform-oriented and centrist. Thorning-Schmidt won the spot.

It was two of her own Social Democrat colleagues, Ritt Bjerregaard and Freddy Blak, who gave her the now famous nickname, ‘Gucci Helle’, a barbed commentary on her elegant, uber-class style.

Thorning-Schmidt was born in 1966 in the Copenhagen suburb of Ishøj to solidly middle-class parents with right-leaning politics. Her mother was a business professional, her father an economist.

It was only while studying for her first masterÂ’s degree in European studies at the prestigious College of Europe in Bruges in the early 1990s that she became interested in the traditional workersÂ’ party, the Social Democrats. She had also just met her future husband, Stephen Kinnock, the son of BritainÂ’s former Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock.

In 1994 Thorning-Schmidt completed a second masterÂ’s in political science from the University of Copenhagen and joined the Social Democratic party. In the course of the next eleven years she would win seats in the European Parliament and Danish parliament and become the Social DemocratÂ’s first female party chairman.

But her path to last weekÂ’s victory was not trouble free.

She had her first major setback in 2007, when she failed to beat Liberal PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen and consigned her party to another four years in the opposition. Then, in 2010, with this yearÂ’s election on the horizon, she and Kinnock were embroiled in a tax scandal that threatened to end her political career.

The tabloid B.T. revealed that Kinnock, who works and lives in Switzerland Monday through Friday and only stays in Copenhagen, where the couple is raising their two daughters, on the weekends, was not paying income taxes in Denmark. Thorning-Schmidt quickly laid bare the coupleÂ’s financial information and apologised for what she called an honest mistake. After an investigation, the tax authorities found them not guilty of intentional tax evasion.

After the tax scandal, critics questioned whether Thorning-Schmidt could hold onto her party leadership if she failed to win this year’s election. After ten years in the opposition – with six at the helm and one big election failure on her watch – they noted that it was do or die time for the politician.

But last Thursday, she won – albeit by a slimmer margin than pre-election polls had predicted. Ironically, the very election that cemented Thorning-Schmidt’s place in Danish history also left her with a weakened hand.

The Social Dems lost one parliamentary seat. More significantly, their campaign partners and closest allies, the Socialist People’s Party (SF), lost nearly a third of theirs. With the SF severely weakened, Thorning-Schmidt will need to rely even more on the support of the other two left-of-centre parties – the Social Liberals and the Red-Green Alliance.

Those parties’ politics are significantly different than the Social Dems’ and they both had phenomenal elections; they will most certainly capitalise on their new power to influence the new PM’s policies. Most important – and dangerous – for Thorning-Schmidt will be the Social Libs, whose economic goals more closely resemble those of the new right-of-centre opposition and who now have one more seat than the SF.

Thorning-Schmidt will try to form a triumvirate government with the SF and the Social Libs. But following the election upset, the contentious Social Libs could very well demand a pivotal role in her government.

Within an hour of winning the election, Thorning-Schmidt announced that she wanted to work with the new opposition – the Liberals, Conservatives, Danish People’s Party and Liberal Alliance.

Whether she was paying lip-service or genuinely expressing her more ‘right-oriented’ brand of Social Democracy remains to be seen. But most observers agree that Thorning-Schmidt will need all the allies she can muster in order to rule – and that almost certainly means lots of deal-making.

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