June 17, 2015 / 9:09 PM / in 2 years

Danes head to the polls in tightest race for over a decade

Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (R) and opposition leader Lars Lokke Rasmussen (L) greet each other on the last televised debate with all party leaders in Copenhagen June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Claus Bech/Scanpix Denmark

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Danes vote on Thursday on whether to keep Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt in power after unpopular belt-tightening reforms that eventually bore economic recovery or to elect center-right rivals who promise tax breaks.

Denmark’s first female premier, Thorning-Schmidt hopes people will forget broken promises after the last election and instead bask in a growing economy. But her bloc of parties is neck and neck with the opposition led by Lars Lokke Rasmussen.

The latest Gallup poll carried out on Tuesday put the center-right on 50.7 percent against 49.2 percent for the center-left. But another poll put them squarely at 50-50 while a third showed a small lead for Thorning-Schmidt’s bloc.

Pollsters said up to a fifth of voters were undecided, suggesting an unpredictable outcome. But if the polls are correct, the vote may become a repeat of a 1998 election which was so tight that just 180 votes from the Faroe Islands tipped the balance in favor of the center-left.

“It has been 50-50 all the election campaign,” said Gallup’s Camilla Fjeldsoe.

Differences between the two blocs have more to do with their leaders’ styles rather than their policies in a Nordic country known for consensus politics. While Rasmussen’s Liberals want to freeze state spending and introduce tax breaks, Thorning-Schmidt’s Social Democrats have pledged increased spending.

Economists say any such increase would be marginal, having scant effect on markets and future economic growth dependent on European demand for Denmark’s exports.

“Especially from a financial market point of view, there’s no difference -- both sides are in favor of our fixed exchange rate policy and conducting a responsible fiscal policy,” Danske Bank Chief Economist Steen Bocian said.

Thorning-Schmidt’s party trailed Rasmussen’s by as much as 17 points over the past four years but then caught up thanks to a reviving economy, her dignified response to an Islamist shooting attack and her high standing among fellow EU leaders.

She has meanwhile lost no opportunity to remind voters of Rasmussen’s past financial scandals, albeit minor ones, while he lists the promises she broke since taking the helm in 2011, such as improving health services and spending more on education.

Her reforms, while ultimately stimulating the economy, were not popular. They included cuts to unemployment benefits and student grants despite promises of better services.

Uncertainty lingers about the role of the right-wing Danish People’s Party which has surged in popularity in recent years and came out top in European Parliament elections last year.

The anti-immigrant eurosceptic group supports the Liberals but has not made clear whether it would join their government should the opposition bloc win the election.

Polls close at 1800 GMT (1400 ET) followed immediately by two exit polls. Counting in Denmark is expected to finish at 2200 GMT.

Writing by Sabina Zawadzki; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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