Wednesday

14th Nov 2018

Focus

Greenland votes with eye on independence

  • The Artic island is not only the world's largest, it is also one of the world's smallest democracies with only 56,000 inhabitants. (Photo: David Stanley)

Greenland has had home rule since 1979, and self-rule since 2009, and all political parties but one have campaigned for full independence from Denmark ahead of Tuesday's (24 April) parliamentary elections.

But the parties do not agree how fast the independence process should roll. Some want it to happen as early as 2021, 300 years after Danish-Norwegian missionary Hans Egede embarked on a first colonial mission to Greenland.

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  • Incumbent social democrat prime minister, Kim Kielsen, has made better education of Greenland youth a top priority before the country is able to become fully independent from Denmark (Photo: Johannes Jansson/norden.org)

Others are more reluctant, wanting Greenland economy to be stronger before ties to Copenhagen are finally cut.

The Artic island is not only the world's largest, it is also one of the worlds smallest democracies with only 56,000 inhabitants.

The parliament is based in capital Nuuk and has only 31 seats. But despite its miniature size, the far-north elections are followed with much attention from around the world, because of Greenland's geopolitical position and it's rich resources.

Investors are watching Greenland's election for signs of the political will to get oil and mining programmes back on track.

Greenland took over control of its natural resources from Copenhagen in 2009, but due to an extremely harsh climate and environmental concerns, the much-hoped arrival of Chinese investors, big oil companies or British, Canadian and Australian miners has failed to boost the economy.

It has forced Greenland to postpone their dream of independence and focus instead on more pressing daily issues such as shortage of social housing and a high school drop-out rate. Still, the country is depending on Denmark contributing up to half of its state budget needs.

The real issue is not only independence from Denmark - but also the risk of increasing dependence on China.

Greenland's state-owned Kalaallit Airports last month shortlisted the Chinese construction company, China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), to help expand three airports despite concerns in the Danish government that Chinese involvement could upset its ally, the United States.

Greenland is strategically important for the US military as the shortest route from North America to Europe goes via the Arctic island.

Fishing and tourism

Fisheries remain the most important source of income for Greenlanders, with a deal struck with Brussels allowing EU fleets to keep fishing in its waters until 2020. But growing appetite among Asian consumers could make a good business for Greenland itself to catch the fish, process and export it.

Also tourism is a potential new source of revenue, with Nuuk watching how Icelandic tourism has boomed. The neighbouring island went bankrupt during the financial crisis but has managed to pull it self out of the economic disaster by, among other resources, exploiting a trend in tourism for great nature experiences.

Polls ahead of the elections show that the ruling social democrat Siumut and the left-leaning IA both stand to lose support, but they would still be able to govern in coalition. The two parties have traditionally been careful to protect Greenland's Arctic sensitive environment from industrial exploitation, oil and mining.

Incumbent social democrat prime minister Kim Kielsen has made better education of Greenland youth a top-priority before the country is able to become fully independent from Denmark.

He wants English taught as the second language in school, arguing that it will be more useful for the new generations than learning Danish.

Kielsen, a former policeman, became prime minister when Aleqa Hammond was forced to resign after a scandal involving spending of public money on hotels and flights.

He might however lose the post to Sara Olsvig, who leads the left-leaning Inuit Ataqatigiit party (IA). Her party will come first with 31 percent of the vote, according to a HS poll published on 20 April by Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation, (KNR). Siumut will be backed by 27.4 percent according to the same survey in which 723 voters participated during the days 11-15 April.

The third largest party, the Democrats, stand to get 18.8 percent support. It is a pro-mining party and agree on this with the new Nunatta Qitornai party lead by Vittus Qujaukitsoq, a former social democrat foreign minister.

While Greenland is responsible for airports, the Danish state still holds responsibility for foreign and security policy.

Danish foreign minister Anders Samuelsen has been reluctant to comment on the airport projects out of respect for the ongoing election campaign in Greenland. But the vice-president of the Danish government-supporting party, the Danish People's Party, Soeren Espersen, has openly argued for a slow down on the Chinese company, CCCC, offers to build airports in Greenland.

"Get it stopped now, rather than the humiliation that Americans demand that it be stopped," he told Finans, a Danish newswire service.

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