COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Danish voters appeared set to elect their first female prime minister Thursday and end 10 years of pro-market reforms and a hardening of immigration laws.
Separate exit polls released by broadcasters TV2 and DR with two hours of voting remaining predicted a majority in the 179-seat parliament for the left-leaning opposition led by Social Democratic leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
Both showed her "red bloc" with a seven-seat advantage over the center-right government coalition led by Lars Loekke Rasmussen, though the DR exit poll didn't count the four seats allocated to the semiautonomous territories of Greenland and the Faeroe Islands.
If that outcome stands, Thorning-Schmidt would become the first woman to head a Danish government. It would also stem the influence of the current government's anti-immigration ally, the Danish People's Party.
"Now we have the opportunity to change Denmark and get a new majority. We must grab this opportunity," Thorning-Schmidt, 44, told reporters after voting in Copenhagen.
For the past decade, the government has relied on the backing of the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, enacting reforms to make Denmark more business friendly and less welcoming to asylum-seekers from developing countries.
In consensus-oriented Denmark, there is broad agreement on having a robust welfare system financed by high taxes, but the government and the opposition differ on the depth of austerity measures needed to keep Denmark's finances intact amid Europe's debt crisis.
Thorning-Schmidt wants to dodge some of the government's welfare cuts and raise taxes on banks and the wealthy. Loekke Rasmussen has ruled out any tax hikes.
"We need sound public finances without raising taxes," Loekke Rasmussen, 47, told reporters after casting his ballot in Graested, north of Copenhagen.
A Megafon poll Thursday gave the opposition 51 percent of votes and a five-seat advantage over the government in parliament. The gap was 13 seats in a Ramboell survey.
The polls 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 margin of error ranged between 2.5 and 3.0 percentage points.
The Social Democrats have refused to work with the Danish People's Party, and have teamed up with the working-class Socialist People's Party. They can also count on support of the centrist Social Liberals and the small, left-wing Red-Green Alliance,
Some 300 people lined up early Thursday in northern Copenhagen to vote.
"I will give my vote to the Socialist People's Party, because we need the red bloc to overtake the government bloc," said Jeppe Ilstedt, a 43-year-old unemployed school teacher.
Businessman Bjarke Soerensen, 41, said he preferred Loekke Rasmussen as prime minister because "Helle Thorning-Schmidt is not credible."
The economy has emerged as the top election theme, to the chagrin of the Danish People's Party, which has used its kingmaker role in previous elections to push through immigration laws that are among Europe's toughest.
Loekke Rasmussen has taken credit for steering Denmark through the financial crisis in better shape than many other European countries. However, the rebound has been slower than in neighboring Nordic nations and the government projects budget deficits of 3.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2011 and 4.6 percent in 2012.
Although Denmark isn't part of the debt-ridden eurozone, its currency is pegged to the euro and the country's export-driven economy is affected by shocks from Europe and beyond.
The government's austerity measures include 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.
Thorning-Schmidt has promised to overhaul a system of beefed-up customs controls at borders with Germany and Sweden, which critics say violates the spirit of EU agreements on the free movement of people and goods.