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Denmark's left poised for election win, with 1st female prime minister
COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) ' Denmark's opposition appeared headed for a slim victory in a national election Thursday, signaling a shift to the left after 10 years of pro-market reforms and ever-stricter controls on immigration.
Two exit polls predicted Social Democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt's left-leaning alliance would oust the center-right government and make her Denmark's first female prime minister.
Some government ministers conceded defeat, though with 90 percent of votes counted, there remained a theoretical, but unlikely, chance that ballots from the semiautonomous territories of Greenland and the Faeroe Islands could swing the result in the 179-seat Parliament.
If confirmed, the results would give Denmark a government that could roll back some of the austerity measures introduced by current Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen amid Europe's debt crisis.
A majority for the "red bloc" would also deprive the anti-immigration Danish People's Party of the kingmaker role it has used to tighten Denmark's borders and stem the flow of asylum-seekers.
A TV2 exit poll showed the opposition winning 93 seats in Parliament, with the other 86 seats going to the government side. A DR exit poll, which didn't count the four seats allocated to Greenland and the Faeroe Islands, had the opposition winning by five seats.
A power shift isn't likely to yield major changes in consensus-oriented Denmark, where there is broad agreement on the need for a robust welfare system financed by high taxes.
But the two sides differ on the depth of austerity measures needed to keep Denmark's finances intact amid the uncertainty of the global economy.
Thorning-Schmidt, 44, wants to protect the welfare system by raising taxes on the rich and extending the average working day by 12 minutes.
Loekke Rasmussen says tax hikes would harm the competitiveness of a nation that already has the highest tax pressure in the world.
"We need sound public finances without raising taxes," Loekke Rasmussen, 47, told reporters after casting his ballot in Graested, north of Copenhagen.
The Social Democrats teamed up with the working-class Socialist People's Party and also count on support from the centrist Social Liberals and the small, left-wing Red-Green Alliance,
"I will give my vote to the Socialist People's Party because we need the red bloc to overtake the government bloc," said Jeppe Ilstedt, a 43-year-old unemployed school teacher in the capital.
Businessman Bjarke Soerensen, 41, said he preferred Loekke Rasmussen as prime minister because "Helle Thorning-Schmidt is not credible."
Loekke Rasmussen took credit for steering Denmark through the financial crisis in better shape than many other European countries. However, the rebound has been slower than in neighboring Nordic nations and the government projects budget deficits of 3.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2011 and 4.6 percent in 2012.
Although Denmark isn't part of the debt-ridden eurozone, its currency is pegged to the euro and the country's export-driven economy is affected by shocks from Europe and beyond.
The government's reforms include gradually raising the retirement age by two years to 67 by 2020 and trimming benefit periods for early retirement and unemployment.
The economy emerged as the top election theme, to the chagrin of the Danish People's Party, which has used its kingmaker role in previous elections to push through immigration laws that are among Europe's toughest.
If Thorning-Schmidt becomes prime minister, she isn't likely to make any major changes to those laws, but she's promised to overhaul a system of beefed-up customs controls at borders with Germany and Sweden, which critics say violates the spirit of EU agreements on the free movement of people and goods.