Greenland’s Government: New Coalition, Emerging Challenges

Greenland flag (Photo by Marc Lanteigne).

by Mingming Shi and Marc Lanteigne

After the Greenlandic government of Prime Minister Kim Kielsen fell into a minority position, following the departure of Partii Naleraq (PN) from the governing coalition, in September 2018, there was the question of whether the remaining coalition partners could continue to effectively govern before the next parliamentary elections. There had been some rough sailing on the international front, including the now-infamous endeavour by the United States government to purchase the island from Denmark, and domestically as the country faced the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in Greenland the virus has been brought under control, and the Kielsen administration, pre-pandemic, had also benefitted from recent economic gains [paywall; in Danish] over the past five years, including in regards to improved employment numbers and growth [pdf] in many sectors such as fishing and tourism.

Earlier this month, this government was given a lifeline of sorts in the form of a new agreement between the governing coalition and the centre-right Democrats (Demokraatit) which will bring the government back to a slim majority in the unicameral Greenlandic parliament (Inatsisartut) in Nuuk, with seventeen seats in the 31-seat chamber. The new three-party coalition, composed of Siumut, headed by PM Kielsen, Nunatta Qitornai (NQ), a party which had broken off from Siumut in 2017, and the centrist Democrats, now faces a host of domestic and regional challenges, including the effects of the pandemic and the omnipresent independence question. This week, it was confirmed [in Danish] by PM Kielsen’s office that he would be seeking re-election as the chair of Siumut.

There were some initial signs that the Democrats were interested in signing on to the coalition well before the final arrangement was confirmed. In early May of this year, for example, there was a report [in Danish] in the Greenlandic news agency Sermitsiaq describing the emerging interests of the party to be included in the government, which the Democrats already supported.

There are ten cabinet positions within the administration, and the new coalition prompted several changes of ministerial portfolios. Siumut still enjoys the lion’s share of these posts, with Vittus Qujaukitsoq from the pro-independence Nunatta Qitornai holding the only ministry (Finance) for his party in the current organization. Three new ministers on the team are from the Democrats, including the head of the Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources, Jens Frederik Nielsen, who is also the new leader of the Democrats [in Danish]. Nielsen has studied social science at the University of Greenland [in Danish], is 29 years old, and has gained renown through a successful career as a badminton athlete prior to emerging as a new face in Greenland politics.

The recently crafted agreement [in Danish] for the current government, which is designed to serve in office from 2020-22, features three major themes: growth, stability and security, covering improving local education and economic activities, continuing working on a potential constitution for the nation, and preparing for acquisition of new duties as stipulated in the 2009 Self-Rule Act [pdf], which had been created to facilitate a shift in powers from Denmark to Greenland. Regarding natural resource extraction industries on the island, the newly-formed coalition appears to favour the continuation of policies from the recent previous administrations, and agrees that the nation should promote itself further as a mining destination, and simplifying relevant legislation for foreign investors while ensuring environmental and human security.

Despite uncertain global prices, interest in potential mines in Greenland remains strong as evidenced by the news this week that UK-based Bluejay Mining was anticipating a decision soon from Greenland’s Mineral Resource authorities about an exploitation licence for potential ilmenite mine in the Moriusaq region of northern Greenland. Ilmenite, also known as iron titanium oxide, has several commercial uses, including in cosmetics, paints and plastics.

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[Photo from Inatsisartut, Nuuk, Greenland]
Several economic questions lie ahead for Greenland. Denmark is the island’s former colonial power, and Greenland has been a part of the Kingdom of Denmark since 1953. As per the Self-Rule Act, Copenhagen provides an annual block grant to Greenland, and according to 2018 figures [pdf], this grant amounted to approximately one-fifth of Greenland’s overall GDP [pdf] of 19.2 billion DKK (US$2.9 billion) that year. Copenhagen and Nuuk have also cooperated in order Arctic initiatives, including a marine pollution prevention agreement signed last month, and Greenland is likely to figure heavily in Denmark’s updated government policy paper on the Arctic which is expected to be published soon. However, Denmark was only mentioned briefly in the new coalition agreement. As well, both the United States and China have been seeking to deepen economic relations with Nuuk as the island grows in international interest.

Nuuk is also aware of the potential further damage of the COVID-19 pandemic on Greenlandic society, as well as possible economic losses in the shorter term. However, how well Greenland can effectively identify and address these emerging obstacles, including in the fishing, shipping and tourism industries is an open question as the global economy faces an extensive recession. Greenland’s maritime trade was given a boost this month via a joint services agreement, which recently entered into force between the country’s Royal Arctic Line and the Icelandic firm Eimskip, which may open up new shipping possibilities between Greenland and markets in Europe and North America.

With the new, more stable government coalition now in place in Nuuk, the next steps for Greenland will be how to address both the economic challenges at home and an Arctic neighbourhood which is becoming much less predictable than even a few short years ago.

[The authors would like to thank Mikkel Schøler of Sikki Consulting for his valuable comments on a previous draft of this article.]