Copenhagen (AFP) - The anti-immigration Danish People's Party (DPP) became Denmark's second largest party in Thursday's general election and the biggest in the right-wing bloc, which ousted a centre-left government.
Boosted by rising concerns over the cost of immigration to Denmark's generous welfare state and a perceived erosion of "Danish values", it secured 21.1 percent of the vote, its highest score ever and up from 12.3 percent in the previous election.
"This election campaign has shown that we are a party that the others just can't avoid. We are a party to be taken seriously here in this country," party leader Kristian Thulesen Dahl told cheering supporters at a party event in the Danish parliament.
The Social Democrats, led by outgoing Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, was the largest single party with 26.3 percent of the vote while Venstre, previously the biggest right-wing party, won 19.5 per cent.
Overall the right-wing bloc won 90 seats compared with 85 for the rival centre-left bloc.
Denmark already has some of Europe's strictest migration laws after the party helped right-wing governments between 2001 and 2011 pass legislation in parliament in return for support on its key issue.
Analysts speculated that the party's size will now put pressure on it to join a coalition -- most of its supporters want it to -- but it could also opt to remain outside government to retain its anti-establishment appeal.
The soft-spoken Dahl took the reins of the party in 2012 and is credited with broadening its appeal as he is seen as a less divisive figure than his outspoken predecessor, Pia Kjaersgaard.
-- Shift to the left --
Under the 45-year-old leader, the DPP toned down some of its most inflammatory rhetoric on immigration and veered to the left on economic issues.
In the election it campaigned on tighter immigration rules, higher pensions for low-income earners and more money for healthcare and the elderly.
While Venstre wants to freeze public spending, the DPP wants to raise it, and it wants corporate taxes at a higher level than not just its allies on the right but also the Social Democrats.
That, and disagreements over Europe, mean it sits uneasily with the other three business-friendly parties that make up Denmark's right-wing bloc.
A heated debate on the extent to which eastern European criminals were using the EU's freedom of movement to commit crimes in Denmark helped the DPP become the country's biggest party in the 2014 European election.
-- Elderly base --
It wants Denmark to leave the Schengen Area -- reinstating border controls is one of its top issues -- and along with its right-wing allies wants to make it harder for EU migrants to claim benefits in other member states.
The February attacks in Copenhagen by gunman Omar El-Hussein had no direct impact on the DPP's opinion ratings but kept immigration on the agenda and rekindled Denmark's polarising debate on free speech and the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, first published by daily Jyllands-Posten in 2005.
Denmark received almost 15,000 asylum seekers in 2014, more than double the number in 2013. Around nine percent of the country's 5.7 million inhabitants were born abroad.
Despite broadening its support base, DPP voters are still more likely than others to lack higher education, be elderly and live in small towns away from Denmark's main growth centres.
Around 43 percent of DPP voters are over the age of 60, according to a December survey.
At a recent rally in the town of Kolding, Britta Adsbol, a retired care worker, named immigration as the campaign's most important issue, saying the rising cost of housing refugees was taking away funds for welfare, as she canvassed for her daughter, a Copenhagen lawmaker.
"The elderly, the handicapped, those with lesser means. I think (they) are important," she said.
While Danish business has argued the country needs immigrants to support its ageing population, the DPP wants the opposite: by slashing the cost of receiving asylum seekers and benefits to unemployed immigrants, it wants to increase welfare spending.
The Social Democrats in particular have lost voters to the party and have sought to train the spotlight on what it claims is an underfunded, populist agenda.
On a website titled "Where is the money", the leftist party accused the DPP of lacking funding for 180 billion kroner (24 billion euros, $27 billion) worth of campaign promises.