Danish politician Anders Fogh Rasmussen (born 1953) served as his country's prime minister during the early and middle 2000s. He found himself confronted after his election in 2001 with some of the hot-button international issues of his time: relations between the West and the Islamic world, immigration, and war in the Middle East.
Acharismatic figure who led his center-right party to its first victory over Denmark's left-leaning Social Democrats in many years, Rasmussen was emblematic of a new breed of conservatives coming to power in Western Europe. He hoped to slash the size of Denmark's large social welfare bureaucracy without eliminating the basic protections it offered, and he implemented restrictions on immigration while offering as few concessions as possible to far-right nationalist groups.
Rasmussen (ROS-muess-en) was born on January 26, 1953, in Northern Djursland, in Aarhus County in the rural eastern part of Denmark's Jutland Peninsula mainland. He grew up on the family farm with his parents, Knud and Martha Rasmussen, but he showed an instinct for political life from the start: according to an article in the Financial Times , he and his brothers often played a game they called "politics" and he would invariably choose the role of prime minister. In 1969 he enrolled at the centuries-old Viborg Cathedral School, taking courses in languages and social studies.
While he was there, he organized a chapter of a Danish national organization called Young Liberals. The term "liberal" has a connotation in Denmark (and many other countries) opposite to its meaning in the United States but close to the classical sense of the term, indicating a philosophy or political party devoted to minimizing governmental interference in the affairs of private industry. What motivated Rasmussen to become involved was the outbreak of student demonstrations around Europe in May of 1968, many of which were oriented toward Marxist or Communist ideas. "That was my reaction to the events of May 1968," he told the Economist . Rasmussen remained involved with Denmark's Liberal Party after he entered the University of Aarhus in 1972, and by 1974 he had become chairman of the party's national youth wing. He joined its national central committee in 1976.
In 1976, while still a university student, Rasmussen began doing consulting work for the Danish Federation of Crafts and Small Industries, and he continued to do that work until 1987. Finishing a master's degree in economics at Aarhus in 1978, Rasmussen was immediately elected to Denmark's Folketing, or parliament, from the Viborg district. He married, and he and his wife, Anne-Mette, raised three children. In the early 1980s Rasmussen served as vice-chairman of the Folketing's housing committee.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Rasmussen worked his way up through the Liberal Party hierarchy, moving in and out of the top echelons of government as the party's fortunes fluctuated. In 1984 he was named to the Liberals' parliamentary management committee, and he became vice-chairman of the national party the following year. From 1987 to 1992 he was Minister for Taxation in the Danish cabinet, adding the title of Minister for Economic Affairs to his portfolio in 1990. For much of the 1990s he was out of the Folketing, but he worked as the Liberal Party's national spokesman from 1992 to 1998. In 1998 he became the party's national chairman, after his predecessor, who had been expected to win that year's election, failed to come out on top. Rasmussen held several other administrative posts in the 1990s.
Denmark enjoyed one of the highest per-capita income figures in the world, but it had correspondingly high tax rates, second only to Sweden in personal income tax rates, by one calculation. Rasmussen's Liberals believed that the country's cradle-to-grave social welfare system had become bloated and could be pared, and a series of books authored by Rasmussen himself provided ammunition for the arguments of party members. Those books included Showdown with the Tax System (1979), The Struggle for Housing , and From Social State to Minimal State (1993).
As party chairman, Rasmussen led the Liberals into Denmark's 2001 national elections against the ruling Social Democratic party and its leader, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen (not a relative). In Denmark's parliamentary system, the leader of the party that wins the most seats in the parliament is given the chance to form a government. Rasmussen's platform was toned down from the conservative economic policies he advocated in his books; in place of the "minimal state" of his free-market 1993 broadside he merely advocated a system in which some of the services of Denmark's welfare state would be opened up to participation by private industry. Rasmussen's telegenic appearance also played a positive role in the campaign when placed in contrast with that of his bearded, lumbering opponent. The Economist called him "a professional politician to his fingertips." He also campaigned on promises to freeze taxes, reduce crime, reduce growing hospital waiting lists in the country's government-run health system, and introduce measures that would help Denmark's large elderly population.
The results of the election displaced the Social Democrats from power for the first time since the 1920s, with the Liberals taking 31 percent of the vote to the Social Democrats' 29 percent. The result was ambiguous, however, for Rasmussen was forced to seek the support of several more conservative parties in order to form a government. These included the Conservative People's Party (Konservative Folkeparti) and Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti), the latter a nationalist group that called for new immigration restrictions and specifically deplored the influence of immigrant Muslims on Denmark's ethnically homogeneous society (with an immigrant population of just over 5 percent, the country was less diverse than most of the rest of Western Europe).
Anti-immigrant sentiment was rising in Denmark in the wake of the U.S. terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Danish People's Party, which had received just over 7 percent of the vote in the elections, was still seen as extreme, but Rasmussen finessed the issue by lining up the party's support in parliamentary votes but excluding it from his cabinet. He became Danish prime minister on November 27, 2001.
Rasmussen's working majority held together early in his term, and he was able to implement major sections of his agenda. By June of 2002 the governing Liberals had shaved almost $830 million of spending from Denmark's $53 billion budget. They had taken steps to benefit Danish business interests, and Rasmussen took the seemingly noncontrover-sial step of closing down 103 government boards, councils, and committees, a step that was projected to save $35.5 million. "We wish to tidy up the intermediate layer [of government], which drains our resources and removes attention from the essential matters," Rasmussen explained in his New Year's speech of 2002, according to Maria Bern-born of Europe .
One of those panels eliminated, however, was the Board for Ethnic Equality, whose disappearance drew widespread criticism. The controversy arose because the move was viewed as a concession on Rasmussen's part to the Danish People's Party. Rasmussen cut legal immigration levels, and he put new curbs on foreigners who claimed refugee status when trying to enter Denmark; refugees had to prove that they had actually been victimized by religious, political, or ethnic persecution. The number of refugees seeking asylum dropped from 12,000 in 2001 to 3,000 in 2004. Many refugees headed for other European countries, particularly Sweden, which criticized the actions of its Scandinavian neighbor.
The economic specialist Rasmussen was quickly faced with issues that had international implications. In 2003 he backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, making Denmark one of just a few continental European countries to line up behind the U.S. and Britain, and he sent 500 Danish troops to Iraq in support of the war effort. Danish public opinion first backed the move but later turned decisively against it. A Continental economic slowdown toward the middle of Rasmussen's first term in office dented his popularity, and a massive train bombing in Madrid, Spain, on March 11, 2004, affecting one of the war's other European supporters, raised speculation that Rasmussen could be headed for defeat in the next election.
Rasmussen's Liberals bounced back after he called an election for February 8, 2005, however. Rasmussen campaigned once again on economic issues, claiming that an assortment of tax cuts had added an average of $3,000 to annual Danish family incomes. Teenagers were denied certain welfare benefits, but, noted the Economist , such moves were seen by the Danish electorate as "necessary tweaks, not a conservative revolution." And the new immigration restrictions won support across a wide spectrum of Danish public opinion, excluding only the leftmost segments of the political spectrum. In the February elections, both Rasmussen's Liberals and the Social Democrats actually lost seats, while parties farther to the left and right made gains. Rasmussen's majority in the new Danish parliament was unchanged, standing at 94 of the Folketing's 179 seats.
The major challenge in the first part of Rasmussen's second term came in early 2006, when Islamic anger exploded worldwide after a series of cartoons were published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten (Jutland Post) newspaper late the previous year. The cartoons depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a disparaging way, with one of them showing him with a bomb-shaped turban. Protests flared in Copenhagen and in many Islamic capitals, and Danish consumer goods were removed from shelves in Islamic markets.
Rasmussen referred in his 2006 New Year's message, quoted in the Economist , to "unacceptably offensive instances" of attempts "to demonize groups of people on the basis of their religion or ethnic background," but he maintained that owing to the principle of freedom of the press in Denmark, the government had no control over what Danish newspapers printed. A group of 11 ambassadors from predominantly Islamic countries asked to meet with Rasmussen. He initially refused, drawing strong condemnation from a group of Danish foreign service officers, but later met with several of the Islamic ambassadors. The controversy simmered down slowly, and the threat of terrorist attacks in Denmark reportedly remained high through 2006 as Rasmussen turned to other aspects of his foreign agenda that included support for the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Early in 2007, Rasmussen unveiled a plan to cut Denmark's dependence on imported energy, aiming to provide 30 percent of Denmark's energy needs from wind power, hydrogen, and biofuels by 2025.
Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations: World Leaders , Gale, 2003.
Economist , November 24, 2001; March 20, 2004; December 18, 2004; February 5, 2005; January 7, 2006.
Europe , June 2002.
Financial Times , November 22, 2001.
New York Times , November 22, 2001.
"Denmark unveils plan to reduce fossil fuels, double use of renewable energy," International Herald Tribune , http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/01/19/europe/EU-GEN-Denmark-Cleaner-Energy.php (January 23, 2007).
"Prime Minister of Denmark: Anders Fogh Rasmussen," Prime Minister's Office of Denmark, http://www.stm.dk (January 23, 2007).
"Rasmussen, Anders Fogh," Parliament (Folketing) of Denmark, http://www.folketinget.dk (January 23, 2007).