June 17, 2015 / 6:08 AM / 2 years ago

In Danish election, campaign turns personal in tight race

BORNHOLM, Denmark (Reuters) - Dressed in a denim shirt and black jeans, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt cracked jokes and took selfies with supporters on the island of Bornholm, just days before a June 18 election that could end her political career.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (4th R) arrive in the city of Viborg, on the second day of her two-day campaign tour of Denmark June 15, 2015. REUTERS/Asger Ladefoged/Scanpix Denmark

It was an unusual performance for the 48-year-old premier, famed for her expensive tastes which earned her the moniker ‘Gucci Helle’ and rather formal, rigid style of speaking.

But her relaxed demeanor reflected her party’s success in making up lost ground to the center-right opposition, whose lead over Thorning-Schmidt’s bloc was some 17 percent two years ago and still seemed unassailable earlier this year at 10 percent.

Now the two blocs are running almost neck and neck ahead of Thursday’s vote -- one pollster said you could “toss a coin” to see who will win. And with both Thorning-Schmidt and opposition leader Lars Lokke Rasmussen, 51, expected to leave politics if they lose, the campaign has taken on a personal intensity.

She and her Social Democrats lose no opportunity to remind voters of Rasmussen’s past financial scandals, albeit minor, and question his credibility saying his policies are “dubious”.

On Tuesday, some 1.5 million Danish households received a letter from Helle, as everyone calls her, imploring them to “say No to Lars Lokke Rasmussen”.

Meanwhile, Rasmussen and his Liberals list the promises the prime minister broke after the 2011 election including better public transportation and health services. One advert states: “Back then, she was so cocksure. Vote for the Liberal Party”.

“The issue of trustworthiness has really come to the front,” said Rune Stubager, Professor at Aarhus University’s Department of Political Science.

“Because the government has been in trouble with voters due to their policies, they have seized the opportunity to use the personality of their main contender as one of their key weapons.”

Thorning-Schmidt’s dignified response following a shooting attack by an Islamist gunman in February and her growing stature within Europe have bolstered her standing, while Rasmussen has stumbled amid questions over his judgment.

The prime minister’s personal rating stands at 42 percent compared to Rasmussen’s 26 percent, a stark reversal from 2013 when he polled 46 percent and she was at 16 percent, according to pollster Epinion.

But the bloc of opposition parties are a touch ahead with 50.9 percent compared to 49.1 percent for the ruling parties. The group that ends up with more parliamentarians gets the first opportunity to form a government.

SCRATCHES ON THE VARNISH

Neither figures are without controversy for the Danes.

Despite her a strong international profile thanks to the famed Obama selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service and marriage into the British Socialist aristocracy in the shape of the Kinnock family, many felt betrayed by her government when it had to implement spending cuts as growth ground to a halt.

Rather than spending on teachers and infrastructure, as promised in the 2011 election, the government cut unemployment benefits and reduced student grants.

Now, Thorning-Schmidt hopes people will forget the past as the economy recovers. The export-led economy grew 0.4 percent in the first quarter of 2015, the seventh quarter of growth in a row, though it is dependent on the fortunes of its neighbors.

“In recent years Denmark has gone through a severe crisis, the worst crisis since the Second World War ... We were hit harder than other countries because the good times were used poorly,” she told supporters on Bornholm before triumphantly declaring: “We are out of the crisis. Denmark is back on track.”

Rasmussen meanwhile is haunted by a succession of spending scandals and a botched start to his takeover of the prime minister’s chair in 2009 when his predecessor, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stepped down unexpectedly to become head of NATO.

Media slammed his handling of his first task, hosting the COP15 climate change convention. Papers dubbed it FLOP15, saying he was unprepared, offended China and napped at one session.

He was accused last year of excessive spending on clothes and first class plane tickets and while the party defended him, he was widely expected to step down. Political pundits say some members are still grumbling that he did not.

“I am very much aware, almost painfully aware, about what you call my credibility, that my varnish is scratched. And no one is more sorry about it than myself,” Rasmussen told a televised debate on the day the election was called on May 27.

However, the bitter campaign may have tarnished everyone, not just Rasmussen, with a poll conducted by Norstat showing confidence in politicians at record lows of around 30 percent, compared to 60 percent in 2011.

“The election has shown to be more about fear mongering,” said Andreas Holck Hoeg-Petersen, 23, an activist on Bornholm. “I think it’s sad you can’t be visionary and discuss what we want in the election. Right now, we’re just voting for the best administrator.”

Additional reporting by Teis Jensen; Writing by Sabina Zawadzki; Editing by Crispian Balmer

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