Denmark appears headed for a shift to the left that would cut the influence of an anti-immigration party and make a Social Democrat the country's first female prime minister.
On the eve of Denmark's parliamentary election Thursday, the left-leaning opposition bloc held a clear lead over Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen's center-right coalition in three surveys released Wednesday, and appeared ready to return to power after a decade in opposition.
Although a power shift isn't likely to yield political major changes _ the main parties have similar views on the economy, welfare, foreign policy and immigration _ Social Democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt wants to slap taxes on banks and wealthy Danes and dodge some of the austerity cuts planned by the government to balance the budget.
"We have a government that has believed that austerity was the right way to achieve more growth in Denmark," 44-year-old Thorning-Schmidt told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "Austerity and tax cuts are not the right course for Denmark. What we want to achieve is to create more growth, kickstart the economy and then after that create the foundation for a new sustainable growth."
Loekke Rasmussen has ruled out raising the tax burden on Danes _ already among the highest in the world.
"I know for sure it would be a very wrong medicine to introduce tax increases," he told reporters Wednesday. "And that is what is going to happen if we have a change of government."
Loekke Rasmussen, 47, leads a coalition government consisting of pro-market Liberals and Conservatives that has stayed in power for a decade with the parliamentary backing of the far-right anti-immigrant and europhobic Danish People's party (DPP).
In return, the government has given the Danish People's party a say on government policies, including immigration laws, which are now among Europe's strictest.
The Social Democrats say they will refuse to work with the Danish People's party, and have teamed up with the Socialist People's Party, a hardline working-class party that has moved toward the center. They can also count on support of the centrist Social Liberals and the small, left-wing Red-Green Alliance.
A Ramboell poll published in newspaper Jyllands-Posten showed the opposition bloc winning 91 seats and the government alliance 84 seats in Denmark's 179-member Parliament. A Megafon survey for Danish TV2 and newspaper Politiken had the same result while a Voxmeter survey for the Ritzau news agency gave the opposition 92 seats against 83 seats for the government side.
The surveys did not include the four seats allocated to the semiautonomous territories of Greenland and the Faeroe Islands. Each poll was based on interviews with about 1,000 people and the error margin ranged between 2.5 and 3.0 percentage points.
Loekke Rasmussen became prime minister in 2009 when his predecessor Anders Fogh Rasmussen stepped down to become NATO secretary-general, and is widely considered less charismatic than the elegant, confident Thorning-Schmidt.
The economy has emerged as the top election theme, with growth forecasts constantly in flux due to uncertainty over the European debt crisis in the 17-nation eurozone. Although Denmark has its own currency, it is pegged to the euro and the country's export-driven economy is open to shocks from Europe and beyond.
Loekke Rasmussen has taken credit for steering Denmark through the financial crisis while keeping unemployment in check, but stimulus efforts have been costly, with projected budget deficits of 3.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2011 and 4.6 percent in 2012.
The government has adopted austerity measures including gradually raising the retirement age by two years to 67 by 2020 and trimming benefit periods for early retirement and unemployment. Last month, it presented a new 10.8 billion kroner ($2.1 billion) stimulus package, including public investments aimed at jump-starting Denmark's sluggish housing market.
The opposition presented a similar plan and also proposed new taxes on banks and the wealthy.
Thorning-Schmidt having Danes work 12 minutes longer every day should help save an early retirement scheme that the government wants to scrap.
On immigration, Thorning-Schmidt isn't planning any big changes to the strict rules on asylum and family reunification imposed in the past decade under the influence of the Danish People's Party.
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, if not the letter, on agreements on the free movement of people and goods inside the European Union.
Soeren Espersen, a high-ranking member of the Danish People's Party, said he wasn't worried that an opposition win would mean a loosening of Denmark's borders.
"The border control is popular," Espersen said. "It would be a mistake for Helle Thorning-Schmidt to try to change it."
Associated Press writer Karl Ritter contributed to this report.