Greenland’s Next Government: Continuity or Change?

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Polling station at Godthaabshallen, Nuuk, Greenland. [Photo by Mikkel Møller Schøler]
This week’s elections in Greenland were carefully watched not only in the Arctic but also internationally, given the number of foreign policy questions which had begun to appear surrounding this vote. The 24 April balloting produced no majority for any party, but the Siumut Party [In Danish and Greenlandic], led by Prime Minister Kim Kielsen, won the most number of votes despite challenges from established parties like Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) headed by Sara Olsvig, and new arrivals including the upstart Nunatta Qitornal (NQ), a pro-separation party led [In Danish] by Vittus Qujaukitsoq, a former minister of business and foreign affairs, (along with other economic portfolios), with Siumut. Only incorporated in September 2017, the NQ was barely able to establish itself in time to be a contender for this month’s ballot. After the election, it was announced that former Greenlandic Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond would sit in the Danish parliament [In Danish] as a representative of NQ.

Siumut won 27.7% of the vote, down from 34.3% four years ago, and will again need to build a stable coalition, possibly with IA [In Norwegian] and/or some of the smaller parties, in order to continue governing. Suimut’s initial vote tally would give the party nine seats in the 31-seat parliament, with IA gaining eight seats. One potential partner is the Demokraterne Party [In Danish and Greenlandic], or Democrats, which ran on a pro-business platform and is supportive of Greenland’s fledgling mining industry. Demikraterne saw major gains in voter popularity, (19.5% versus 11.8% in 2014, obtaining six seats this year), and may be a factor in the political and economic directions Greenland will take in the near future.

Although domestic issues had dominated much of the campaign, including the omnipresent fishing industry, education reform, and improvements to infrastructure, two other matters, namely Danish relations, including the possibility of independence from the Kingdom of Denmark, and foreign investment, including in mining ventures, were never far from the debates. Siumut has taken a cautious approach to the independence question, especially in comparison with NQ, and Mr Kielsen had declined to publically set a target date for an independent Greenlandic state.

As for the mining industry, the enthusiasm for opening mines which was prevalent five years ago gave way to greater pragmatism after commodity and energy prices fell after 2014. However, should the prices of raw materials, including metals and minerals, rise again in the short term, climate change has made Greenland an attractive prospect considering the island’s large natural resource base [In French]. A ruby mine in Aappaluttoq in southwest Greenland began operations last year, and other possible mining projects under discussion include for ilmenite, an ingredient in paint and toothpaste, and nickel. Those who favour independence from Denmark in the short term may see mining as an income source which might successfully offset the annual grant, worth approximately 3.7 billion Danish kroner, (or about US$600 million), from Copenhagen. The grant, along with the Greenlandic fishing industry, encompasses the majority of the island’s GDP, and so there has been much discussion about better diversifying the economy.

Much attention has been paid to two developing mining projects which involve Chinese investment, specifically the rare earths, uranium and zinc mine at Kvanefjeld, supported by Shenghe Resources, in the southern part of the island, and far to the north at Citronen Fjord, a zinc mine with China Nonferrous as a major partner. As Beijing continues to expand its Belt and Road investment projects further into the Arctic, Greenland has been seen as a key player for Chinese economic interests in the region, especially since the United States has largely withdrawn from Arctic affairs in recent months under President Donald Trump.

The US has also been involved in a complicated dispute between Denmark and Greenland over the responsibility for the clean-up of former American military sites on the island. The United States Air Force (USAF) continues to maintain a cold-war era military base at Thule in Greenland’s far north. As a recent report described, the Danish government has often played a ‘Greenland card’ in its security relations with Washington, given the importance of Greenland to American strategic interests in the Atlantic Arctic during the cold war and in recent years as US-Russian relations continue to sour. There is therefore the question of what would be the American reaction should Greenland move closer to independence in the coming years.

In addition to mining interests, a Chinese firm, the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), (Zhongguo jiaotong jianshe gufen youxian gongsi 中国交通建设股份有限公司), is seen as being in the running for a contract to expand one or more of Greenland’s airports in preparation for an expansion of the island’s tourism industry, a turn of events which has alarmed some policymakers in Denmark. During a visit [In Danish] by Prime Minister Kielsen to Beijing in autumn of last year, investment, including potentially in Greenlandic infrastructure, was a main discussion topic. The decision confirming which company will get the airport restructuring contract is expected to be announced by this September. As well, plans are underway between China and Greenland to open mutual diplomatic offices [In Danish] in each others’ capitals.

As negotiations begin this week to form a new coalition government in Greenland, it will not only be Denmark who will be watching the changes to Greenland’s foreign relations and trade under the next government very carefully.