Back to the Polls in Greenland

Greenland flag (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

This week, it was announced by Greenland’s Prime Minister, Kim Kielsen, that a parliamentary election would be held next month, with a date of either 17 or 24 April [In Danish] to be determined by 13 March. The vote will be taking place ahead of schedule, as the government was not obligated to hold an election until late November of this year. The last round of elections was held in 2014. Thirty-one seats will be contested in the Greenlandic Parliament (Inatsisartut), with the largest parties being Mr Kielsen’s Siumut (‘Forward’) Party and the Inuit Ataqatigiit (‘Community of the People’), headed by Sara Olsvig [In Danish].

While Greenland was granted ‘self-rule’ [pdf] in 2009, Copenhagen retains oversight of Greenland’s defence and foreign policy issues. The vote is taking place at a time when Greenland faces many questions regarding its economy, foreign policy, and relations with Denmark.

The Greenlandic economy is based on both the fishing industry and an annual block grant from Copenhagen of approximately 3.4 billion Danish kroner (US540 million), but the island is hoping to diversify its economy both through the developing of mining projects and, by taking a page from next door neighbour, Iceland, expanding its tourism industry to meet a growing international demand for recreational travel in the polar regions. However, development of both these industries is seen as being hampered by the lack of infrastructure, including buildings and roads, in Greenland and especially outside of the capital of Nuuk.

Among the major questions [In Danish] which will likely form the bulk of the election debate include issues such as improved education, health care and housing, possible new airports to better support increased tourist numbers, and potential reforms of the omnipresent fishing industry.

Another thorny issue which may appear in the election debates involves the responsibility for the cleaning up of abandoned US military installations left over from the cold war. An agreement between Denmark and Greenland was struck in January of this year which would set aside 180 million kroner (US$29 million) as an initial budget for the removal of the debris. However, there are critics, including within the fledgling pro-sovereignty movement Partii Nunatta Qitornai [In Danish], led by former Greenland Foreign Minister Vittus Qujaukitsoq, who have argued [In Danish] that the amount is insufficient.

The number of current and potential mining projects in Greenland has increased in recent years, leading to questions about whether metals and minerals will begin to assume a greater percentage of the island’s income. These endeavours include a ruby and pink sapphire mine which formally opened in May 2017 at Aappaluttoq in south-western Greenland, and a developing mining operation for rare earth elements (REEs), uranium and zinc at Kvanefjeld, overseen by Australia’s Greenland Minerals and Energy, partnering with a Chinese firm, Shenghe Resources.

Greenland has numerous deposits of base and precious metals, as well as gemstones, which are becoming more accessible along the Greenlandic coast as the island’s ice sheet continues to erode due to climate change. However, the possibility of expanded mining operations introduces the question of potential environmental damage and even further diminishing of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

nuuk coast
Coast of Nuuk, Greenland (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

The relationship with Denmark and the possibility of further Greenlandic sovereignty or even independence will likely hover over the election process for the next month. The idea of outright independence, especially as a result of the development of the mining and fossil fuel sectors reducing dependence on Copenhagen, was extensively debated five years ago when energy and commodity prices were much higher and then-Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond expressed support for an eventual path to a separate Greenlandic state.

However, in the wake of a changed global economy this discussion has cooled but hardly disappeared. While many Greenland politicians are open to the idea of independence, opinions differ on a possible timetable. There is also the question of how to achieve separation from the Kingdom of Denmark without causing an economic downturn, especially since Greenland has a small population (56,000) and an economy which is tied to Copenhagen in several ways beyond the annual Danish stipend. The Danish government is also wary about the possibility of increased foreign investment in Greenland becoming a catalyst for growing public support for independence.

Denmark has focused much specific attention on China’s interests in Greenland, especially as the country’s Belt and Road trade corridors are set to expand into the Arctic in the coming years. A December 2017 report [pdf] by the Danish Military Intelligence Service noted that Chinese diplomacy in Greenland was primarily commercial in nature but that ‘there are certain risks related to large-scale Chinese investments in Greenland due to the effect that these investments would have on an economy of Greenland’s size.’ For example, it was reported in April of last year that the Danish government intervened when the Hong Kong mining firm General Nice, which owns the rights to potential iron mining at Isua in south-west Greenland, sought to purchase a deserted Danish naval base at Gronnedal.

The elections are likely to be watched very carefully in Denmark as well as in much of the Arctic region, as Greenland’s economic potential becomes more apparent. The results of the vote could lead to marked economic changes on the island, and possibly a more open pathway towards significant political changes as well.

[The author would like to thank Mingming Shi for her assistance in the researching of this blog post.]