COPENHAGEN, DENMARK —
Election billboards across Copenhagen warn immigrants against thinking they can exploit Danish welfare benefits. "If you come to Denmark, you have to work," the posters say.
The message is not intended for immigrants, but for Danes who are concerned about foreigners abusing their welfare system. And the messenger is not some far-right political group; it's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of the Social Democratic Party.
Before Denmark's parliamentary election Thursday, both Thorning-Schmidt's left-leaning alliance and the center-right opposition have promised to further tighten Denmark's controls on immigration.
Both sides want to crack down on "welfare tourism" by refusing permanent-residence permits to unemployed immigrants, thereby making it harder for families of refugees to join them in this Nordic nation of 5.6 million.
The nationalist Danish People's Party wants to go even further and reinstate border controls with neighboring Germany and Sweden — countries that accept the highest number of refugees in Europe.
"Through generations we have built up this welfare society and now you have outsiders who exploit it. It's not fair," said Lasse P. Bang, a 47-year-old janitor who said he was on paid sick leave after breaking his ankle at work.
Denmark sharply restricted its immigration policies in 2002 but the issue continues to resonate among voters. With polls showing the government bloc and the center-right opposition neck-and-neck, their campaigns have increasingly focused on the impact of immigration on the welfare system.
Official statistics show first- and second-generation immigrants represent 12 percent of the population and 16 percent of the 1 million people receiving some kind of government benefits, including student grants and parental leave.
While the over-representation of immigrants isn't huge, many Danes worry that the country's generous welfare benefits have become a magnet for people living in less wealthy countries in and outside the European Union.
"We want an EU where people can go wherever workers are needed, but we don't want an EU where people go wherever the social benefits are good," opposition leader Lars Loekke Rasmussen said last week.
That discussion has suited the Danish People's Party, one of the trailblazers in a Europe-wide surge of populist parties that are opposed to immigration and skeptical of the EU.
It lost its influence when Thorning-Schmidt took power in 2011, but is hoping for a comeback as a sidekick of Loekke Rasmussen's center-right bloc.
The party has ratcheted down on anti-Islam outbursts but is calling for a return of the border control it pressed the previous government to introduce, angering other EU countries who saw it as an attack on the idea of a borderless Europe. Thorning-Schmidt's government scrapped them as soon as it took office.
Peter Skaarup, a senior member of the Danish People's Party, told The Associated Press the border checks are needed to make sure criminals don't slip into Denmark. He compared it to checking people's tickets as they enter a movie theater "and not afterward in the dark."
Many immigrants find the discussion tiresome.
"It sort of irritates me that we again have to talk about immigration," said Imran Feduz, a Palestinian immigrant working in a newspaper shop. "I know some immigrants who live off social welfare, but Danes do the same."
Like many other European countries, Denmark has seen an increase in asylum-seekers in recent years, especially from Syria. Last year, 15,000 people sought shelter in Denmark, twice as many as the previous year. Meanwhile, Sweden received more than 80,000 asylum-seekers.
Thorning-Schmidt, who garnered international headlines in 2013 for taking a selfie with President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron at a Nelson Mandela memorial, called the election last month as the end of her four-year term was nearing. Her polling numbers have been poor since taking office, but the opposition's lead has dwindled in recent weeks.
Thorning-Schmidt has pledged to raise welfare spending by 39 billion kroner ($5.7 billion), while the opposition says that improvements can be achieved without expanding the public sector.
Polls show Thorning-Schmidt is more popular than her main rival, particularly after her firm response to the February shooting attacks against a free-speech seminar and a synagogue in Copenhagen.
Loekke Rasmussen, who was in power until 2011, has suffered from reports that he used government and party funds for personal expenses, such as upgrading his wardrobe.
Both Thorning-Schmidt's Social Democrats and Loekke Rasmussen's Liberals depend on other parties to build a majority. A new party, the environmentalist Alternative party, has entered the mix this year, and is expected to support the government bloc.