Danish Center-Right Claims Vote Victory



COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Denmark's center-right prime minister declared victory in Tuesday's election after near-complete returns showed his governing coalition defeated the left-wing opposition.

"Everything indicates that the government can continue," Anders Fogh Rasmussen told jubilant supporters of his Liberal Party. He called it "historic" that a Liberal-led government had been re-elected for a third term.

He spoke shortly after the leader of the key opposition party conceded defeat in an election that focused on immigration, welfare and taxes. There was broad agreement on keeping the cradle-to-grave welfare state.

"I promised I would beat Anders Fogh Rasmussen. That didn't happen," a tearful Helle Thorning-Schmidt told supporters of her Social Democratic Party. "Danes need more time before they hand over responsibility to us."

With 99 percent of votes counted, the government bloc had won 94 of the 179 seats in Parliament, including five from the New Alliance led by a Syrian-born Muslim immigrant Naser Khader.

A total of 808 candidates ran, representing nine parties with 12 independents.

The prime minister called the early election three weeks ago, taking advantage of favorable approval ratings and an upbeat economy. Denmark's jobless rate is at 3.1 percent, the lowest in three decades, and the economy grew 3.5 percent last year.

With pre-election polls pointing to a victory for Fogh Rasmussen, the big question was whether he would need Khader's party to stay in power. That could diminish the influence of the anti-immigration Danish People's Party, which has backed Fogh Rasmussen's coalition since 2001.

Khader, a black belt in karate who once dreamed of becoming Palestinian foreign minister, has said he wants to pull the prime minister away from the influence of Danish People's Party leader Pia Kjaersgaard.

Even though it holds no Cabinet seats, Kjaersgaard's populist group, known for its harsh rhetoric against Muslims, has been instrumental in shaping Denmark's tight immigration laws.

As he cast his ballot, the prime minister said forging an alliance with both parties would make his job "a little more complicated."

"The most important thing is that the government can continue," said Fogh Rasmussen, 54. "I will play with the cards that the voters give me. I am sure it will work out."

Khader and Kjaersgaard were key figures during Denmark's most turbulent days since World War II: the wave of Muslim rioting last year against caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad printed in a Danish newspaper.

Kjaersgaard's party said the crisis showed Islamic traditions clash with the foundations of Danish society, such as the freedom of speech. Khader formed a network of moderate Muslims as a counterbalance to Islamic extremists.

Immigration is expected to remain a key issue.

Economists and Danish corporate leaders say the Nordic country needs to open its doors to more workers from abroad to keep the economy growing, and Fogh Rasmussen has pledged to push for a U.S.-style green card system to allow more skilled foreign workers to enter Denmark.