Mattias Tesfaye says immigration is a threat to Denmark’s social cohesion and generous welfare state. But the 38-year-old former bricklayer is not a member of a populist rightwing party. He is immigration spokesman for the country’s centre-left Social Democrats, and the son of an immigrant himself.
Mr Tesfaye has been one of the public faces of the party in the run-up to Denmark’s parliamentary elections on Wednesday, which polls suggest could deliver a rare victory for Europe’s centre-left and are being closely watched across the continent.
After decades of taking a liberal position on immigration, the Social Democrats have in the past few years toughened up both their rhetoric and policies, a switch that appears to be resonating with voters. Whereas in the last election in 2015 they eked out a victory over the anti-immigration Danish People’s party, the Social Democrats are this time predicted to win more than double the votes of the populists.
“If only the far-right is talking about the problems, then it is only the far-right where people will be looking for solutions,” said Mr Tesfaye, who has an Ethiopian father and Danish mother, in an interview with the Financial Times. “If I were a liberal rightwinger or in an Anglo-Saxon [country] then open borders would not be a problem. But for a Scandinavian welfare state, immigration has to be controlled.”
The election campaign has been dominated by the twin issues of maintaining Denmark’s generous welfare system and immigration, following the introduction of a series of harsh measures targeted at migrants in recent years.
A law passed by the current parliament allows police to confiscate money and jewellery from asylum seekers, stirring up talk of parallels with Nazi Germany. The Social Democrats backed it, but Mr Tesfaye said the ruling centre-right parties played up its controversial elements. Similarly, they supported a proposal to double the punishment of certain crimes in areas designated as ghettos.
For some, tough anti-immigration policies in the traditional party of the left means simply that it has been co-opted by populists. Michala Clante Bendixen, chair of Refugees Welcome, which offers free legal advice to asylum seekers, said she could no longer see the difference between the Social Democrats and DPP on immigration.
“This is what makes my work hopeless. No matter what government we get, there will not be a change in policy. And they are extreme policies,” she added.
But Mr Tesfaye denied the Social Democrats were merely copying the populists, arguing instead that they were reclaiming centre-left ideas from the 1960s and 1970s when the first waves of immigrants came to Denmark.
“The areas where the migrants are moving to are classically Social Democrat areas. So typically it will be Social Democrat voters who will have kids in schools that will have problems, typically skilled and unskilled workers who will have new colleagues. This is challenging the social cohesion in the welfare state,” he said.
The change of direction began after Mette Frederiksen replaced former prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt as leader and started taking the party in a more social-conservative direction. She caused shockwaves when she gave a joint interview with the DPP leader in 2017.
She told the Financial Times a few months later that Europe’s centre-left had become detached from its voters. “The most important thing about being a Social Democrat party is actually being relevant. Are you able to find the answers to the problems that people are facing?”
That approach has helped to squeeze the populist vote. Recent opinion polls give the DPP about 11-12 per cent support, almost half its level from 2015 when it was the biggest party on the centre-right but did not enter government. Kenneth Kristensen Berth, one of the party’s MPs, said the Social Democrats had “zigzagged” on immigration and were likely to disappoint voters once in power.
“I don’t think we are threatened. People know the DNA of this party. In some ways, I’m looking forward to the Social Democrats being in government. It’s going to be so damn expensive,” he added.
The Social Democrats have hinted that they would govern in a single-party minority government, seeking support from the likes of the DPP on immigration while others on the leftwing for economic issues. Although polls give the centre-left a solid lead over the centre-right, Ms Frederiksen received a warning last weekend when the governing Liberal party of prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen pipped the Social Democrats to victory in European elections.
Both critics and supporters agree that Denmark is at a crucial juncture. Ms Bendixen said the anti-immigration policies were aimed at keeping “Denmark a homogenous welfare system, as an island in the world. But we’re already multicultural. You can’t turn things backwards”.
Mr Tesfaye acknowledged the challenges of moving to a more heterogenous nation where some residents, for instance, do not want to eat pork, a symbol of identity for many in Denmark. Asked how easy it was to ensure parallel societies for immigrants do not spring up, Mr Tesfaye let out a sigh.
“To be honest, I don’t know if we will succeed. But I know if we don’t succeed, the Scandinavian welfare state will have to be reformed into something else. We’ll give it a try.”