An election campaign largely focused on immigration helped take down the Danish left, leaving Denmark's leading anti-immigration party as a big winner. A block of right-wing parties is now expected to form a new government. The campaign should serve as a warning to parties in other European countries where anti-immigration movements are thriving.
"Never let your opponent pick the battleground on which to fight. If he picks a battleground, let him fight there by himself." So spoke Franklin D. Roosevelt, four-time U.S. president and political animal extraordinaire. This wise lesson went unheeded over the three weeks of the hard-fought Danish election campaign. The staunchly anti-immigration Danske Folkeparti (Danish People's Party, or DPP) has for years been a kingmaker in Danish politics. The DPP routinely came in as the third or fourth party on the right and supported right-wing coalitions while never joining the government itself.
Left-wing parties usually succeeded in making the economy, education, or the environment the centerpiece of election campaigns. However, this time the Social Democrats - the biggest party on the left, headed by now-former Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt - decided to help push immigration into the spotlight. This was a gift to the DPP.
Thus Thorning-Schmidt committed the cardinal error; she fought on the battleground picked by the Danish People's Party. Other parties joined in, with the expected results: Nearly all parties on the Danish right lost seats to the DPP, allowing it to score a record win. The DPP secured the second-largest allotment of seats in the Folketing, the Danish parliament.
The election campaign followed a classic path. Whenever moderate right-wing parties proffered new, stricter anti-immigration measures to lure voters away from the DPP, the party simply moved to the right, thus leaving its competitors looking soft on immigration. The DPP not only picked off voters from its direct competitors on the right - its more extreme positions also enthused normally apathetic voters, who turned out and voted DPP.
The election campaign should serve as a warning to moderate parties throughout Europe who are faced with the rise of anti-immigration movements. Only rarely do moderate parties succeed in wrestling the immigration issue away from more extremist competitors without turning extremist themselves. In the Netherlands - a country highly comparable to Denmark in its political makeup - the right-wing Liberal Party (VVD), does constant battle with Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) over immigration. Thus far the VVD has succeeded in keeping the PVV at bay by making elections revolve around issues like the economy, crime, and security. In other words, the VVD has so far been able to pick the battleground, forcing the PVV to fight there and lose.
In many other Western European nations (France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Norway, and most recently Germany), moderate parties are increasingly faced with popular anti-immigration parties.
The challenge to the moderate parties is to mitigate immigration through smart policies, and continue to choose the battleground on which the election is fought, regardless of what the focus groups advise. That is the lesson of the Danish election campaign for the rest of Europe.