Elections in Denmark and Latvia Push Back Against Populist, Rightwing Trend in EU (10/05)     Print

National parliamentary elections in two of the smaller EU countries — Denmark and Latvia – have broken with the trend for political gains in recent years by ultra-rightwing, nationalistic, anti-immigrant parties.

Denmark got a new prime minister – the first woman to win the post -- in Social Democrat helle1Helle Thorning-Schmidt (who happens to be the daughter-in-law of Britain’s former Labor Party leader Neal Kinnock.)  She eked out enough seats to become the leader of a new center-left coalition government. It is expected to ease up on enforcement of some recent Danish anti-immigrant provisions that have caused consternation in other EU countries.

 

Latvia’s election proved to be a milestone in giving a plurality to the Russian-ethnic party, Harmony Center – a potentially historic shift from the anti-Russian resentment that has prevailed in the two decades since Latvia regained its independence from the former Soviet Union. The left-wing Harmony Center fell short of a majority, and the new government is to be led by existing Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis at the head of a coalition that does not include the Harmony Center party.

The complex voting outcome In Latvia is significant in the downgrading two parties considered to be under the control of “oligarchs” with Kremlin ties. Ironically, it comes as vindication of a sort for former President Valdis Zatlers: he was defeated in a snap election last summer when he dissolved parliament on the grounds that it was blocking a corruption probe of a parliamentarian with ties to the oligarchs. Zatlers lost the presidency in the process, but his party has come back strongly in the September legislative elections. (In a talk to the European Institute in April, President Zatlers said that while Latvia was one of the hardest hit countries in the eurocrisis, but is making an economic recovery and still intends to join the Euro.)

In Denmark the shift toward the liberal Social Democratic coalition with three smaller left-leaning parties means that one of Europe’s most influential anti-immigrant parties, the Danish People’s Party, will no longer be in Denmark’s ruling coalition and will likely lose influence.  The People’s Party, with its  redoubtable leader Pia Kjaersgaard,  was the prime mover in pushing through a plan earlier this year to reinstate customs checks at Denmark’s borders with Germany and Sweden. This drew protests from Germany and the EU on the grounds that it threatened to disrupt (and even start unraveling) the unfettered freedom of movement guaranteed in the Schengen Treaty, one of the hallmarks of European unity.

Spurred by xenophobic sentiments, Danes have recently adopted 49 new anti-immigrant measures including Europe’s strictest rules for asylum. They include draconian requirements for Danish marriages to foreigners -- including the “24- year rule” barring Danes from marrying a foreigners if either spouse is younger than 24. The new government reportedly will eliminate a notorious point system for granting residence permits in Denmark. (Many people in Denmark, as in other "Schengen nations" of the EU, have been alarmed by the spectre, real or imagined, of refugees from conflict areas such as Libya reach the continent and then flow across open borders to seek asylum in the more prosperious northern EU countries.)

The new Thorning-Schmidt government, with only a five-seat majority in parliament,  is not expected to try repealing other immigration laws already on the books but simply be more  moderate in applying them and also refrain from piling on more anti-immigrant measures.

The new prime minister of Denmark, which assumes the rotating EU presidency in a year, is considered “pro EU” in the Danish political landscape, but is not expected to advocate Danish adoption of the euro.  The euro crisis has proved something of a boon to Denmark’s currency, creating strong demand for krone as a currency play. Denmark’s central bank has cut interest rates twice since August to prevent the krone from further rises in its exchange rate, which could weaken demand for Danish exports. .

Latvia-watchers are now watching for an abatement in the long-standing fervor in Riga over former Russia dominance, which has roiled Latvian politics ever since liberation.  The Harmony Center party, which caters to the Latvia’s ethnic Russian minority, is regarded moderate as having become more moderate. For example, the current Harmony leader Nils Usakovs says he is “not allergic” to calling the period under Soviet rule as an ”occupation”—a long standing shibboleth among Latvians. But he insists that Russians (then “Soviets”) who migrated to Latvia in those years should not be labeled as “occupiers.” An unknown factor in this dynamic is the impact of what now appears to be the certainty of Vladimir Putin’s return to supreme power in the Kremlin.

European Affairs