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Denmark's female-led government flounders

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It was probably the defining snapshot of Danish politics in 2013: At Nelson Mandela's memorial service, Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt snapped a "selfie" with U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain. The image immediately went viral on the Internet.

For the three political leaders and their fans, it was a moment of harmless fun. For their detractors it was proof of unbecoming frivolity on a solemn occasion.

Like any seasoned politician, Thorning-Schmidt took the criticism in stride and contrived to put a positive spin on the event. The mood was convivial and informal, she told Danish state television afterward, and a friendly relationship with the American president could only be an advantage.

"It would have been a problem for Denmark," she said, "had I sat ramrod straight for three hours and never exchanged a word with President Obama."

Thorning-Schmidt enjoys few lighthearted moments these days. Even as she sat down between Obama and Cameron, her telephone brought news of yet another government crisis back home: Morten Bodskov, her justice minister and a stalwart ally, was resigning, having misled parliament about secret-service snooping on an opposition leader.

Government reshuffles are common in a country where coalitions are the norm, but the frequency with which Thorning-Schmidt has been obliged to shift her cabinet around has raised eyebrows. Since she came to power in October 2011, the prime minister has turned up at the palace five times to tell the Danish queen about cabinet changes.

Foreign Minister Villy Sovndahl quit last month owing to ill health, but all the others had to go because of incompetence, misinforming parliament or small-time sleaze. Another minister narrowly escaped being sacked, immediately before Christmas, after bypassing normal procedures to promise state aid to a favoured social project.

The frequent scandals have cemented the electorate's perception that Denmark's first female-led government is floundering. A Dec. 21 poll published by Megafon, a research institute, put the government and its allies at 45 per cent, a low score for a coalition government. The growing disenchantment with Thorning-Schmidt herself was even more starkly illustrated in a second Megafon poll on New Year's Eve, in which only 16 per cent said the prime minister was an asset to her Social Democratic Party.

With last year's economic growth estimated at a measly 0.4 per cent, Thorning-Schmidt badly needs some good news to have a chance of getting re-elected next year. A reform package, widely expected in the spring, that would boost private-sector productivity by cutting red tape and reducing levies could help. The improvements, however, will hardly happen quickly enough to mollify unemployed workers facing reduced benefits and other sanctions under new rules that came into force on Jan. 1.

Meanwhile, the public's unease about foreigners' access to Danish jobs and welfare under the freedom-of-movement rules of the European Union is on the rise. As elsewhere in northern Europe, this fear could translate into a drubbing for mainstream politicians and victory for anti-EU populists in elections to the European Parliament in May.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2014 A13

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