October 4, 2011
“My priority is to get a grip on the economy.”
– Helle Thorning, quoted by the Guardian
Her fondness for wearing bold colors may not have anything to do with her political ideology, yet it is clear that the newly-elected prime minister of Denmark stands out not just for her sartorial elegance alone. Helle Thorning-Schmidt is the first woman to be elected to the top position in Denmark, making her the newest face in the pantheon of the world’s 21 female political leaders. After standing almost a decade in the political wilderness, the Social Democrat Party was steered to victory by Helle in the September elections. This has also helped Europe’s beleaguered center-left to make its presence felt in the Scandinavian nation.
Long before her recent surprise election victory, Helle Thorning has been through the thick and thin of politics right from her student days at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium where she also met her husband Stephen Kinnock. But Helle’s love affair with politics became serious only after her marriage into the U.K.’s Kinnock political family, well-known for big names such as Labour Party leaders Neil and Glenys Kinnock. Helle also had a stint as a consultant for the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, according to a profile featured on the BBC website. Helle Thorning served a term as a member of the European Parliament from 1999-2004, and assumed the leadership of the Social Democrats in 2005.
Denmark’s outgoing Prime Minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, had taken charge two years back when his predecessor Anders Fogh Rasmussen resigned to become the secretary-general of NATO. Lokke Rasmussen’s apparently inept handling of the Copenhagen climate-change summit spoiled his country’s reputation abroad. Still, to be fair to Rasmussen, he managed to maneuver the country through the financial crisis, though the current state of the economy pales in comparison with prosperous neighbors such as Sweden and Norway. Though Denmark is considered to be in a stable financial situation, the country’s budget deficit is slated to touch 4.6% of the gross domestic product by 2012, according to a report in Financial Times.
The astute politician that she is, Helle Thorning-Schmidt made the issue of reviving the country’s economic growth her main poll plank. She made a proposal to tax the rich Danes and at the same time proposed an increase in public spending to spur growth. The Danes sat up and took notice after her statement that she was not in favor of introducing austerity measures, a heartening suggestion in a country known for its extensive public welfare schemes. To improve the nation’s productivity and to kick-start a slowing economy, Helle came up with the idea that each citizen should put in 12 minutes of extra work every day to increase productivity by an hour every week. Helle’s thoughts seem to have touched a chord with the Danish voters going by the election results, which gave her four-party coalition a wafer-thin majority of 89 seats in a parliament with a total of 179 seats. Still, her new role is not going to be a cakewalk. Sounding a cautionary note, the outgoing Prime Minister Rasmussen quipped in The Economist that the keys to the prime minister’s office were “only on loan.”
“Make no mistake, today we’ve written history.”
– Helle Thorning-Schmidt, to her supporters, quoted on BBC website
Indeed, the 44-year-old mother of two daughters has quite a bit on her plate as she takes the hot seat. First, Helle has to put her house in order. Building a consensus among the group of opposition parties on the plan of action to be followed by the new government will be her primary task at hand. Denmark’s outward affluence may mask such underlying issues as a troubled banking sector, which is yet to recover fully from the property crash of 2008. Moreover, the country narrowly escaped from the clutches of a renewed recession during the first half of the year. Helle Thorning will also have to address the burning issue of Danish politics: immigration. Ms. Thorning advocates an immigration policy that she feels is more humane, in place of the highly restrictive system of customs controls currently followed at the country’s borders with Sweden and Germany that many feel go against the letter and spirit of the EU agreements on free trade.
Quite naturally, Helle Thorning’s personal life and her predilection for the good life came under media scrutiny during her election campaign. The issue of a husband and wife living miles apart – Helle resides in Copenhagen while Stephen is based out of Switzerland in his capacity as a director of the World Economic Forum – was discussed threadbare by the Danish media. The question of possible tax evasion by non-resident Stephen Kinnock, which was raised by the Danish tax authorities last year, also figured in the no-holds-barred political theatrics that preceded Helle’s election victory. Helle Thorning’s polished style and her penchant for designer wear has given her the nickname “Gucci Helle,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the contrast between her public persona as the leader of a workers’ party and her expensive tastes.
Criticisms apart, Helle Thorning commands great respect from her colleagues and friends who say that Ms. Thorning is a formidable person in her own right, independent of her husband’s political dynasty. Supporters also point out that Helle Thorning has successfully managed to hold her party together through difficult times. Though much has been made of Helle’s gender following her electoral success, it is unlikely that this will continue to be an issue in a country known for its well-established equality laws.
Hailing from the small town of Ishoj near Copenhagen, Helle Thorning is poised to pilot the destiny of Denmark and 5.5 million Danes through a challenging period. Without doubt, Helle’s performance in office will be closely watched by economists and investors alike. But now, the onus is squarely on the classy social democrat to prove that she has both style and substance.
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