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Syrian-born Muslim may be kingmaker in Danish poll

Written by: Staff

COPENHAGEN, Nov 10 (Reuters) The popularity of a Syrian-born Muslim set to play kingmaker in next week's election may herald a shift in anti-foreigner sentiment in Denmark, which has some of Europe's toughest immigration curbs.

Naser Khader's New Alliance party, just six months old, has already cut a swathe in the centre of the political spectrum.

Polls show it has enough support to play the decisive role after a battle between the governing centre-right coalition and the Social Democrat-led opposition that is too close to call.

Khader, 44, was 11 years old in 1974 and reluctant to leave Syria when his father brought the family to Denmark in search of a better future.

Now he says, ''Denmark is my home country and my children's home country''.

''The more I go to the West Asia, the more Danish I become because I start to see things with Danish glasses, Danish eyes -- no democracy, no freedom of speech,'' said Khader, who was born of a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother.

Khader and his party have drawn support from the left and right by vowing to combat the influence of the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, improve treatment of asylum seekers and cap income tax levels in Denmark, which are among the highest in the world.

The combination of social-liberal values and self-help economics that embrace globalisation appeals to many well-educated Danes who find the Danish People's Party (DPP) a low-brow embarrassment.

Secular Khader grabbed national attention when he led a moderate Muslim movement in 2006 urging calm after a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad sparked violent protests by Islamists across the West Asia.

While fighting Muslim extremism, Khader also battled the far-right DPP and has vowed to cut its leader Pia Kjaersgaard down to size.

''Our goal is to reduce her power. She has had too much power the last six years. It is not healthy for Denmark and Danish society,'' he told a news conference this week.

Kjaersgaard's DPP has supported the centre-right minority coalition government of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, helping it to pass tougher immigration rules after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Khader jokes that the only thing he has in common with Kjaersgaard is concern for animal welfare. ''She likes animals.'' MORE REUTERS JT ND1316

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