COPENHAGEN (AFP) - Denmark's ruling centre-left bloc was neck-and-neck with the opposition in Thursday's general election, exit polls showed after voting ended, following an intense three-week campaign focused on immigration and the economy.
Public broadcaster DR gave the right-wing opposition 89 seats in its poll against 86 for centre-left Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, while commercial television TV2 gave the opposition 88 seats versus 87 for the ruling bloc.
The tight polls mean the outcome of the election could be decided by two former Danish colonies, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, where three out of four seats traditionally go to the leftist bloc.
However, a dispute over mackerel quotas means the Social Democrats are expected to have a weak showing in the Faroes, an autonomous territory where they have faced stiff competition from a pro-independence party.
The polls predicted the anti-immigration Danish People's Party (DPP) would win just over 18 per cent of the vote, which if confirmed would be a record result for the party.
Visibly moved, party leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl sang the Liverpool FC anthem "You'll never walk alone" as he took to the stage at a party event in the Danish parliament, cheered on by party workers and supporters.
"This election campaign has shown that we are a party that the others just can't avoid. We are a party to be taken seriously here in this country," he said.
Immigration and the rising cost of housing asylum seekers was a major campaign theme for both right and left, along with the economy and the future of the country's cherished cradle-to-grave welfare state.
Social Democratic premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt, in power since 2011, and right-wing opposition leader Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who governed from 2009 to 2011, have both claimed credit for a resurgent economy and tried to woo voters with pledges to curb immigration.
"I'm asking people to vote for certainty and they know what they get with me. They get a stable economy and they get good welfare," Thorning-Schmidt said earlier in the day as she arrived outside a Copenhagen polling station with husband Stephen Kinnock, a British Labour MP.
WOOING UNDECIDED VOTERS
Politicians campaigned until the last minute, with 20 per cent of voters undecided.
The DPP, which backed right-wing governments between 2001 and 2011, has yet to say whether it will seek to join a right-wing government, which needs its support to pass legislation.
"We're just going to be where we get the most influence," Dahl said.
The election campaign saw Thorning-Schmidt make a remarkable comeback in opinion polls, buoyed by an economic recovery and repeated attacks on Rasmussen's plans to freeze public spending.
Rasmussen has accused the premier of negative campaigning and of taking credit for reforms introduced by his administration.
Thorning-Schmidt's approval ratings had been stuck in the doldrums for most of her four-year tenure as the economy dipped in and out of recession and her centre-left coalition implemented policies viewed as right-wing, including welfare cuts and corporate tax reductions.
STRING OF MAJOR SCANDALS
But she has rebounded in opinion polls since calling the election three weeks ago as economic growth returned - expected to reach 1.7 per cent this year - and after taking a tough stance on immigration to win over voters from the DPP.
"In reality it is because Lars Lokke Rasmussen was even more unpopular," said Rune Stubager, a political science professor at Aarhus University, referring to a string of spending scandals that hit the opposition leader's popularity ratings.
Unusually for a Social Democrat, Thorning-Schmdit campaigned on the slogan "If you come to Denmark you should work".
Her government has also introduced temporary residence permits for refugees, as part of its efforts to stem an influx of asylum seekers.
Rasmussen has said he would cut back the number of asylum seekers by slashing benefits for new immigrants and by making it harder to obtain permanent residency.