COPENHAGEN - Danish voters have ousted the government of Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and backed an opposition in which the anti-immigration Danish People's Party emerged as the biggest force.
"What's key for us is that we get the most influence," Mr Kristian Thulesen Dahl, leader of the Danish People's Party, said. The party won one-fifth of the votes, almost doubling its support since 2011, after promising Danes tougher immigration and asylum laws.
Based on preliminary results published by national broadcaster DR.DK, Ms Thorning-Schmidt's Social Democrats emerged as the strongest party, with 26.3 per cent of the vote, yet without enough seats to form a government. The centre-right bloc that includes the Danish People's Party secured a majority of 90 seats in Parliament, compared with 85 for the government.
That will allow the bloc to form the next government, with the leader of the conservative Liberal Party, Mr Lars Lokke Rasmussen, expected to become prime minister.
Although the Danish People's Party won more votes than the Liberals, none of Denmark's many smaller parties was willing to form a government with it, said University of Copenhagen political science professor Kasper Hansen.
Ms Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark's first female prime minister, announced she will resign as leader of the Social Democrat Party.
"Our efforts didn't get us as far as we'd hoped," she told party members. "We were defeated at the finishing line."
Mr Thulesen Dahl said it was not a given that his Danish People's Party, despite emerging as the biggest group in the winning bloc, will aim for Cabinet posts. "My view on where we can achieve the most influence isn't necessarily from inside the government," he said.
The last time the party was part of a ruling alliance was from 2001 to 2011 when it provided parliamentary support without joining the Cabinet. The party is sceptical of Denmark's membership in the European Union (EU) and has argued in favour of border controls to defy the single market's free movement of labour.
The result is a blow to the beleaguered EU, which faces the threat of a British exit and a worsening crisis in Greece.
The Danish People's Party has said it is willing to enter an alliance with other EU-sceptical parties that would ask Danes to vote much more often on European reforms.
Should the Danish People's Party take on Cabinet posts, "then Denmark's relationship with the EU will become a bit more difficult", Professor Eva Soerensen of Roskilde University said by telephone.
The opposition won because Mr Rasmussen, who was prime minister from 2009 to 2011, was able to direct the focus of the election campaign towards immigration, Prof Soerensen said.
"Images of masses of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean" probably also played a role, she said.
Denmark has consistently ranked among the world's happiest nations, but the flow of immigrants has ignited a backlash that has heightened nationalist sentiments, a trend that has also unfolded amid political upheaval in neighbouring Finland - where the populist Finns Party joined the government - and to some extent in other European countries.
"Immigration has been a very key and decisive issue in this campaign," Professor Hansen said.
BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK TIMES