Convicted Racist Hits Danish Campaign Trail After Easter Riots

(Bloomberg) -- He makes Donald Trump’s stance on immigration seem moderate and has been dubbed a “professional troublemaker” by Marine Le Pen. In Denmark, he’s just passed the threshold to become an official candidate for elections due to be held by mid-June.

Rasmus Paludan is a convicted racist who has spent months provoking local adherents of Islam by marching into their neighborhoods and burning the Koran. He says he’s exercising his freedom of expression.

Convicted Racist Hits Danish Campaign Trail After Easter Riots

He had been largely ignored by the Danish media until Easter, when his antics sparked riots in the streets of Copenhagen. Since then, local newspapers, celebrities and political commentators have all weighed in to figure out how the development has altered the political landscape in Denmark.

Paludan, who’s appealed his conviction, says it’s not about race.

“I reject the whole concept of putting people into race categories. There’s nothing in our politics based on race or the color of your skin. Most of our politics is based on the behavior of people,” Paludan said in a phone interview in Copenhagen. “If they behave in ways that are not compliant with Danish values, we detest that.”

Cartoon Controversy

Almost 15 years after grappling with the Muhammad cartoon crisis (in which Denmark’s biggest newspaper became the target of Muslim anger across the globe for publishing caricatures of the Prophet), the home of Lego and Lurpak again finds itself caught in a tense debate about how to weigh religious dignity against freedom of speech. This time, the international context has grown far more populist, with anti-immigration agendas dominating elections across much of the world.

On Saturday, Danish Defense Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen was quoted in the Berlingske newspaper as saying that Paludan has made the whole country vulnerable to the same kinds of risks that followed the cartoon crisis. Back then, Danish embassies were attacked amid violent protests across much of the Muslim world. Danish exports were also boycotted in a number of countries.

Paludan, a well-spoken lawyer, is exploiting his newfound notoriety to gain a foothold in national elections. He got the requisite 20,000 signatures after taking advantage of a legal loophole to get his group, Hard Line (Stram Kurs), onto the official list of parties up for election. He declines to reveal his age beyond saying he’s in his “mid-to-late-30s.” His goal is a government that supports “a mass exodus where we send hundreds of thousands of people back to their home countries.”

Convicted Racist Hits Danish Campaign Trail After Easter Riots

Support for Hard Line was estimated at 2.7 percent in a poll on Thursday. That’s above the 2 percent hurdle needed to enter parliament. The newspaper that published the survey, Politiken, emphasized that the Megafon poll carries a margin of error of 1.1 percentage point and noted there was greater uncertainty than usual because it was the first poll to include the party. But history offers a cautionary tale against underestimating such anti-establishment outsiders. From the Brexit movement in the U.K., to Matteo Salvini’s League in Italy and Trump in the U.S., the list of affronts to conventional wisdom in political forecasting is long.

There’s much to embolden Paludan in the current climate. And with the aid of social media, his message is making its way to a broader group. Salvini and Le Pen have been reaching out to like-minded politicians ahead of the European Union’s May 23-26 elections, which could see the far right challenge make significant gains in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Convicted Racist Hits Danish Campaign Trail After Easter Riots

In Denmark, the fact that Paludan will be guaranteed a podium during the country’s televised election debates is forcing voters to confront some uncomfortable truths about their society. His Hard Line group is now one of two that have overtaken the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party from the right. Many policies of the DPP, on which the current center-right government has relied to stay in power, have been adopted by the biggest opposition party, the Social Democrats.

“What’s happened over the last 20 years is that anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant views have become almost mainstream,” says Carina Bischoff, an associate professor of politics at Roskilde University. “We now see plenty of public figures who agree more and more with these points of view, and that opens the ground for extremists.”

Denmark’s shift in attitudes toward foreigners can be traced back to the start of the millennium, when then Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (who later became NATO secretary general) put an end to the pariah status of the nationalist DPP by accepting its support in parliament. Since then, the DPP has played a crucial role in toughening Denmark’s immigration policy, rising to become the second-biggest political presence in the process.

Refugee Crisis

The DPP has capitalized on the refugee crisis of 2015, when more than one million asylum seekers and illegal migrants, mostly from the Middle East, made their way into Europe. Professor Kasper Moller Hansen of Copenhagen University says the turning point came with televised images of Syrians walking along the country’s western motorway, which shocked many Danes.

Convicted Racist Hits Danish Campaign Trail After Easter Riots

The center-right government of Lars Lokke Rasmussen has since made international headlines because of its treatment of foreigners. Examples include a bill that allows the police to confiscate jewelry from asylum seekers, and the introduction of draconian family re-unification laws that have drawn criticism from the United Nations. And while the prime minister’s Liberals have said they are willing to talk to any party after the election, Professor Hansen says “it’s difficult to see them reaching out” to Paludan to secure his support.

Meanwhile, Denmark continues to suffer from a shortage of labor that many business leaders have argued could be addressed by allowing more skilled immigrants into the country.

Paludan has been disavowed by his family and has exasperated the police, who have imposed restrictions on his provocations to avoid exposing the public to the risk of riots. His Youtube channel is up again after being temporarily banned, while his Facebook page has been blocked for one month, local media reported Friday.

Back in 2005, most Danes rushed to the defense of Jyllands-Posten after the paper published its controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Now, politicians and media operators are less sure.

“Paludan is an extreme phenomenon that successfully exploits today’s digital media,” said Michael Dyrby, the editor in chief of B.T., Denmark’s best-selling tabloid. But “Danish democracy is strong and will probably survive Hard Line and its crazy leader.”

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