COPENHAGEN — Danish politics has a new kingmaker, if not a new king.
As the Danes head to the ballot boxes on Tuesday, former Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s new party has surged into third place in the polls — projected to win 21 out of the 179 parliament seats on offer.
But more importantly, neither the left- nor the right-leaning parties would likely be able to form a government without Rasmussen’s support — giving him a decisive say in whether the “red” or “blue” bloc of allied parties could take an overall majority in the election.
Rasmussen is using that position to push for a centrist government with parties from both sides of the divide, an effort that could potentially upset the nation’s post-war political order.
Some have even suggested that he may use his position as a kingmaker to point to himself as the new prime minister. A recent poll showed that 27 percent of Danish voters would prefer Rasmussen as the new head of state, second behind current Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
“Just a few weeks ago, we didn’t even know if Rasmussen would be able to get enough votes with his new party, the Moderates. Now he’s one of the dominant figures in this election campaign,” said Thomas Larsen, a political analyst at public radio station Radio4.
“He is also known in Danish politics as the comeback kid, like Bill Clinton in the U.S.,” Larsen added.
Rasmussen, who is seen as a tough negotiator and experienced politician, was prime minister from 2009 to 2011 and again from 2015 to 2019 for Denmark’s Liberal party, Venstre. But he left the party in 2021 after a disappointing election result the previous year and the leadership’s unwillingness to adopt a more centrist program.
With his new party, he hopes to form a centrist government with Frederiksen’s Social Democratic Party in order to circumvent more extremist political views on both wings.
Rasmussen says the need for a centrist government is underscored by the prospect of energy shortages, rampant inflation and the war in Ukraine, which took on more immediacy with last month’s sabotage of two pipelines carrying gas from Russia to Germany through Danish waters. Frederiksen has said she also favors such a constellation.
Rasmussen’s return to the political stage has been aided by poor performances of his main competitors in the polls.
Although Frederiksen’s Social Democratic Party is projected to remain the biggest, it has lost popularity in recent months, with many Danes questioning her involvement in recent scandals. This follows an illegal coronavirus-related slaughter of the country’s mink population in 2020, plus the fallout from the arrest of the head of the Danish secret service.
The blue parties on the other side of the divide are not doing much better.
For weeks, polls showed that Søren Pape Poulsen, leader of Denmark’s Conservatives, would be one of Frederiksen’s main competitors to become Denmark’s next prime minister.
In a break from tradition, Poulsen announced he would run in the election as a prime minister candidate, alongside Frederiksen and Liberals leader Jakob Ellemann-Jensen. Previously, the blue bloc parties had worked together to back the Liberals’ leader as prime minister if they secured a majority in a general election.
But Poulsen has stumbled in the polls after revelations that his now ex-husband’s claims to be Jewish and related to a former Dominican Republic president were untrue.
Rasmussen’s old party, the Liberals, has struggled in recent years to recover after a series of internal crises, including the departure of several key members, and is projected to lose 20 seats. One of those members is former Immigration Minister Inger Støjberg, who started a new party, the Danish Democrats, less than one year after she was sentenced to two months in jail for ordering the illegal separation of refugee couples.
“Both the left and right bloc increasingly look at Rasmussen as a threat, and have really started in the last week or so to attack him,” said Larsen.
It is clear that it will be a difficult coalition negotiation, according to Steffen Hjaltelin, former campaign adviser for Rasmussen and the architect behind several election campaigns of the Liberal party.
“The first thing that I expect will happen if Frederiksen needs the votes of the Moderates is that Frederiksen will offer Rasmussen a key position in her government, as either the foreign or finance minister,” he said.
“Faced with that scenario, the other two big parties, the Liberals and Conservative party, would be more than willing to offer him the position of prime minister in a coalition with them,” Hjaltelin added.
That would put both Rasmussen and the radical right parties in a tight spot, in which they will have to show their true colors.
“The Moderates was created, among other things, to keep the radical right out of any influence. But to become prime minister, he now needs their backing,” Hjaltelin said. “And the radical right will have to change their positions and support a party created to keep them from influence. It will not be easy.”