For more than two decades, the Danish People’s Party ran on an unapologetically anti-immigration, populist platform, pushing Danish politics to the right by rejecting multiculturalism and opposing the transfer of sovereignty to Brussels.
Today, the DPP faces its own challenge from the right.
Nye Borgerlige, or “The New Right,” led by 41-year-old Pernille Vermund, pursues a libertarian economic agenda and wants even stricter controls on migrants in a country that already has some of the most stringent immigration laws in Western Europe.
Vermund, a trained architect, has called for a ban on headscarves in schools and public institutions. Her party wants asylum to be given only to refugees coming directly from the U.N. refugee agency’s resettlement scheme and those with “a job in hand,” and supports limiting Danish citizenship to people who “contribute positively” to society.
“Those who don’t have the ability to provide for themselves, we have to ask them to find another place to stay,” Vermund said.
Fawaz Taha Zatto, a teacher who came from the Syrian city of Ras al-Ayn two years ago, is “frustrated and disappointed” with Nye Borgerlige’s anti-immigration rhetoric. “The positive contribution in a society depends on feeling welcomed by the community and the authorities,” he said.
Vermund’s party wants to withdraw not only from the European Union but also from the Refugee Convention and the U.N. convention on statelessness, and it wants to strengthen ties with countries such as Norway and the U.K. in order to “safeguard free trade” while “getting rid of the EU.”
After the Brexit referendum, Vermund got in touch with then-UKIP leader Nigel Farage, but they “didn’t continue the communication,” she said.
In her office in the upscale Copenhagen neighborhood of Christianshavn, Vermund chose her words carefully. She didn’t want to be misunderstood. “When you advance as powerfully as we do, there will always be people who are against you,” she said, with a smile.
Vermund, originally from Snekkersten, a southern suburb of Helsingør 45 kilometers north of Copenhagen, studied architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. In 2009, she was elected to the Helsingør City Council for the Conservative People’s Party but withdrew from politics in 2011 in order to get “the family back on its feet” after a divorce. She has three sons between the ages of 6 and 12.
Running her own business, going through a divorce and working in politics put a strain on her personal finances: It’s only been four months since Vermund took a last part-time job as a waitress, according to a recent report in Danish media.
“It costs a lot, on different levels, to start a party from scratch,” she said. For better or worse, she added, she “can no longer be neutral and private” walking down the street.
“So far,” she said, “I haven’t experienced threats or harassment.”
Vermund founded Nye Borgerlige in October 2015 with Peter Seier Christensen, a chemical engineer. The pair left the Conservative People’s Party following Vermund’s unsuccessful bid to become an MP in the general election in June that year.
“We are conservative, Peter and I. The true conservatives,” Vermund said. “We think that the party that currently sits in the Danish parliament is not truly conservative anymore.”
Mostly, the pair clashed with the party over Denmark’s EU membership. Things came to a head when the party supported participation in Europe’s police agency, Europol, which Vermund vehemently opposed.
“I was told that, if I wanted to continue, I had to either be quiet about my opinion — or change it,” Vermund said. “None of the existing right-wing parties in Denmark are against the EU. Some of them are critical, but none of them are critical enough to want to leave.”
A few months later, the Danes voted to leave Europol.
Overtaking the far right
Nye Borgerlige, which counts roughly 3,000 members, has gathered the required minimum of 20,109 signatures to run for parliament in the next election, scheduled for 2019. Polls put the party between 2.6 percent and 4.5 percent — above the 2 percent threshold required to enter the Danish parliament.
Despite its relatively modest support, Nye Borgerlige has the potential to significantly influence Danish politics, given the country’s system of proportional representation, which means the support of smaller parties is often essential to the formation of coalition governments.
And it’s not uncommon in Denmark’s political scene for new parties to quickly gain traction. Liberal Alliance, a member of the current government, was founded in 2007.
According to a Gallup analysis conducted last November, Nye Borgerlige voters are former supporters of the Danish People’s Party.
The DPP, which supports Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s minority government, has watered down its criticism of the EU and compromised with the government on the refugee issue.
“I definitely think that DPP can feel, to a certain degree, pressure from Nye Borgerlige,” said Thomas Larsen, a political commentator with the Berlingske newspaper.
If elections were held today, the DPP parliamentary group would be cut down from 37 to 24 members. A recent scandal over misuse of EU funds has been partially responsible for the decline, but a portion of the Danish electorate has turned to Nye Borgerlige to take a tougher stance on immigration. “They are extremely frustrated by the flow of refugees,” said Larsen.
Nye Borgerlige, which has a more libertarian economic outlook than the DPP, is determined to fill the gap. Vermund said she wants “to completely remove corporation tax” — an unconventional position in a welfare state like Denmark.
The party’s future also depends on the Social Democrats, the party with the most MPs in the Danish parliament and which has also taken a stricter stance on immigration. In August, the party suggested immigrants should be given 200,000 DKK (€26,900) to “go home.”
Vermund’s party could shift the political debate even further to the right and force more mainstream parties to support anti-immigration policies. According to Larsen, the DPP is already trying to toughen its anti-immigration rhetoric in anticipation. “They are trying to send a message to both the government and the public that they want to strengthen their refugee policies, even more,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nye Borgerlige’s positions on other issues are still a mystery. In an interview with Danish television in September, Vermund appeared unprepared for questions regarding pensions, public transport and health care.
“She’s not a very experienced politician,” said Larsen. “I don’t think that Pernille Vermund has been able to set a new agenda.”
Vermund is unconcerned by the criticism, pointing out that her party quickly gathered the 20,000 signatures it needed. “Much faster than any other political party has done before,” she said.
Nye Borgerlige’s first real test will be local elections in November. The party is already represented in nine city councils and one regional council and counts branches in 51 cities around the country, according to Vermund.
“We’re definitely planning to have a candidate in all local councils,” she says. The party’s biggest challenges, she said, will be to “make sure that everybody in Denmark knows who we are and what we stand for.”